RECORDINGS VIEW; From Bill Morrissey, Blue-Collar Angst With a Folk Touch


Published: February 23, 1992


In the title song on Bill Morrissey's fourth album, "Inside," the narrator admits to his companion that their treadmill life certainly "ain't Hollywood." Singing in a quiet, gravelly voice against which Suzanne Vega's softer harmony rings like a mournful echo, Mr. Morrissey, a 40-year-old folk singer and songwriter from New England, describes the dreary existence of an unemployed worker who has recently given up drinking. He fixes dinner each night when his wife, a waitress, returns to their furnished room. Then they wait up to watch the late movie on a black-and-white television set.

Winding through the stark, matter-of-fact language is a solo violin played by Johnny Cunningham that evokes all the regrets and disappointments that cannot be stifled. Despite adversity, however, the relationship seems to be holding. "And you won't leave soon/ Because I know/ You're just like me/ With no place to go," the singer reminds her. "Call it love if you think you should/ There's no need to explain."

"Inside," like Mr. Morrissey's best songs, has a terseness, precision of detail and a tone of laconic understatement that relate his lyrics to the fiction of writers like Raymond Carver and Richard Ford. In the lineage of pop, Mr. Morrissey belongs to a modern acoustic folk tradition that goes back to Woody Guthrie and that includes not only the early Bob Dylan and John Prine but also Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits in their more folkish, songs-of-the-common-man modes.

Mr. Morrissey, who grew up in Acton, Mass., and Hartford and attended Plymouth State College in New Hampshire, is no overnight sensation. He has performed for two decades on the New England coffeehouse circuit while drifting from job to job and town to town, punching factory time clocks and working on fishing boats, in gas stations and fast-food parlors.

Many of his songs are steeped in a mood of stiff-upper-lip, blue-collar angst. Their grayness is often augmented by stark images of the landscape of industrial New England in winter. The pervasive chill is frequently thawed by whisky and a playfully ironic sense of humor.

Mr. Morrissey released his first album, "Bill Morrissey" (Philo/Rounder 1105; CD and cassette), in 1984, and re-recorded its songs last year with improved sound, adding three new selections. Two albums, the austere "North" (Philo/Rounder 1106; all three formats), and the more rollicking "Standing Eight" (Philo/Rounder PH 1023; all three formats) followed. "Inside" (Philo/Rounder PH 1145; CD and cassette) is Mr. Morrissey's best-sounding record, largely because of Mr. Cunningham's expressive fiddle, which threads through five songs, pining dolefully on some numbers, dancing the jig on others.

The tight-lipped blue-collar realist is only one of several aspects of Mr. Morrissey's musical personality to be showcased favorably on the new album. Another side is a surreal trickster who suggests a milder mannered offshoot of the mid-1960's Bob Dylan. "Everybody Warned Me" is a gently phantasmagoric road song that recycles "look out kid," the same warning that punctuated Mr. Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." "Gambler's Blues" is crowded with allegorical figures named the Jack of Diamonds, Miss Downtown and St. Louis, a fellow who toots a broken horn. The title character of "Sister Jo" is a close spiritual relative of the threatening harpies who appear in such Dylan songs as "She Belongs to Me" and "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues."

On "Inside" Mr. Morrissey also has a streak of the blues singer in him, most strongly in "Robert Johnson," a tribute to the seminal blues guitarist in which John Jennings's electric twangs echo Johnson's signature sound. But it is in the sober confessional monologues of characters like the narrator of "Inside" and "Off-White" that Mr. Morrissey's talent burns most intensely.

A bare-bones waltz, "Off-White" describes two people who have been burned but who are still anticipating a second marriage. This time, the narrator promises, "We'll hire us a band/ That won't play 'Proud Mary'/ No matter how late it gets." He adds: "Maybe you weren't my first/ The way I wasn't yours. But the last love is the sweetest of all."

Even better is "Man From Out of Town," the story of a drifter who settles down only to watch his home and possessions go up in flames on a rainy night. In the middle of the fire he imagines he hears the telephone ringing inside. The story works as both a vignette and a bleak parable of a rambler's inability to put down roots once he has left home. In one verse, the man compares a priest heeding Jesus's voice to his own response to the alluring sound of a train in the distance.

Not the least of Mr. Morrissey's contributions to modern folk music is the way his songs imprint an indelible vision of working-class New England onto the broader map of American pop literature. At their best and leanest -- conjuring up a landscape of church steeples, silver maples and wind-blasted seacoast streets -- Mr. Morrissey's songs have the force of poetry.

Photo: Bill Morrissey -- The realist sings of regrets and disappointments. (William Haines for The New York Times)