Morrissey's exquisite, redemptive 'Saw' is something to hear

April 6, 2001

By Daniel Gewertz

In a music world built on hype, comebacks are as common as chords. But with his new CD, Bill Morrissey has pulled off that rare American feat: a true artistic reawakening in middle age. 

"Something I Saw or Thought I Saw" (on Philo) is, like  Morrissey's great 1989 "Standing Eight" album, a work born from divorce. But it might be the most gentle kiss-off you've ever heard. "This album is a first cousin to 'Standing Eight,' but these are different sorts of songs: They're less angry about the split-up. That comes with age and from being around the block. But it also wasn't a nasty split-up," said Morrissey, whose ex-wife, Ellen Karras, still works as his manager. 

A musical rebirth implies there's been a demise. Since the CD "Inside" in 1992, Morrisseyhas recorded two albums of songs written by others and two relatively weak CDs of originals. The last album of his own songs, "You'll Never Get to Heaven," was released five long years ago. 

But Morrissey's writing gifts haven't lain fallow. In 1996, the New Hampshire musician published his first novel, "Edson." He recently finished his sophomore effort, a novel with a title evocative for anyone who ever played a childhood game of baseball without a full team: "Imaginary Runner." 

"In a ballgame, the imaginary runner can only travel as many bases as the next batter does," said Morrissey, who hopes for a bidding war over his new book. "My character is also not in control of his own life. Things happen to him. Where he goes is up to other people." 

The title of the CD, "Something I Saw or Thought I Saw," is also a reflection on our limitations, but in this case, it's the limits of emotional perception. The tales of love and friendship lost and discovered have narrators who are far from youthful know-it-alls. Yet the songs' wisdom hold the light. 

Like a book of stories, this collection of musical tales should not be absorbed all at once. It is too dense with moods and thoughts for that. Part of that sense of density is due to Morrissey's vocal limitations. His thin, dry, almost froggy voice is more creased then ever, and in some songs it's hard to tell where the melody is supposed to be. Some great lines slip by without emphasis, and a few numbers are less like songs than poems set to music. Woody Guthrie had Cisco Houston to deliver pretty versions of his songs. A writer as great as Morrissey deserves his own Cisco. 

But the instrumental sound of the new album more than supports  Morrissey's words. Working with very old friends, the songwriter produced the album himself, and it's a spare, canny beauty. Kent Allyn is eloquent not only on piano but also on guitar and fretless bass. Fiddle-ace Johnny Cunningham is even more expressive than he was on "Standing Eight." Marc Elbaum's reeds and David Henderson's bass don't just fill spaces; they create moods. But the biggest surprise is Cormac McCarthy, the veteran troubadour, whose harmonica is so inventive and agile he compares well to the giants of the instrument. 

The lyrics deserve a column unto themselves. Though there are no funny songs here, some of the most weighty are leavened with incisive wit. A few songs do enter a bleak night of the soul. "When the sun burns every seed you plant, you cannot sell the yield," laments a voice from the void in "Mobile." Yet Morrissey believes in hope and love as only a man who's lost both can. The CD ends with a love song as hopeful and simple as any in Morrissey's career. 

Morrissey once got up late each day, bleary-eyed. Now, living in a small town at the foot of Mount Washington, he wakes at 4:30 a.m. 

Every morning, even when it's below zero, he walks around a nearby lake with his girlfriend, the town's postmaster. "Then she goes to work and I pick up my guitar or my pen," said Morrissey. "I write in the morning, with a caffeine buzz. The whole day's in front of you. There's an excitement. I watch the sun hit the top of the mountain. I'll see moose. It's wonderful. Not the kind of place to hear rap music. It's built for folk songs."