No one owns just one Morrissey album. That would make as much sense as having one Grateful Dead tape or a single Proust volume. Either you've got them all or you go out of your way to avoid socializing with people who do. The issue, of course, isn't with the art but with the cult. In Morrissey's case, his acolytes long ago beatified him as the fragile saint of adolescent misery. "A lot of my fans have this perennial mental image of me being anemic and falling helplessly down the stairs," says Morrissey. "I'm not actually like that at all. They keep such ideas alive for their own sake."
The latest opportunity for the uninitiated to dip a toe into the Morrissey universe arrived last week, when he released his first album in seven years, the (moderately) optimistic You Are the Quarry. But Morrissey knows that it will probably be the same group of hard-core wallowers crowding the register at record stores. That doesn't bother him much, in part because being Mr. Misery is a pretty good gig. (Quarry will probably enter in the Top 10, and his most recent solo tour sold out in--no joke--5 min.) He also knows he has done plenty to earn the title. As lead singer of the legendary '80s band the Smiths, Morrissey was quite possibly the unhappiest person in the world. What bonded him to his audience forever--and made him a prototype for Kurt Cobain--was his willingness to share. "There's no line between me and my material," says Morrissey. "If you claim to be a true pop artist, then you are one 24 hours a day, and your darker moments have to be documented as much as the cheery ones. And even years of despondency need to be documented."
Morrissey had entire decades of despondency. The precise nature of his depression can be divined from his back catalog, which still sells briskly and is full of hopelessness (Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now), tentative homoeroticism (Hand in Glove) and rage at the hypocrisy of authority figures (Margaret on the Guillotine). At 45, Morrissey--his seldom used first name is Steven--has not changed his character; he remains sensitive and defiant, with a lacerating wit. But he has changed his life. In 1998 he left his native England for Los Angeles, where he lives in a house built for Clark Gable. He volunteers for animal-rights charities. He goes out. He has friends. "I'm in a better place, and I feel more resolute and stronger," he says. "It's not easy. You just don't sit back and wait for this to happen."
The only thing missing until recently was music. Although Morrissey's solo albums sold well and he easily filled arenas, he was dropped from his record label in 1997 and spent years looking for a new deal, fighting perceptions that he was petulant and that his audience had aged beyond its intense interest in his every thought. The rise of bands as diverse as Dashboard Confessional and Linkin Park, which have cited Morrissey as an influence, and the flood of Morrissey shrines on the Internet were enough to persuade the Sanctuary Records Group to give him a shot. "I never stopped writing," he says. "To be honest, I haven't stopped since I was 8 years old, and I can see you rolling your eyes, but it's true."