At his core, Morrissey has always been conservative -- not necessarily in his politics but in how he romanticizes the past and plays by the rules of a different time. His passions, whether it's the New York Dolls or '60s British cinema, exist out of time, and he's gone to great lengths to ensure that his music also can't be pinned to a particular era, which means all his solo albums share similar musical and theatrical traits, and they're subject to the whims of fashion. In the years following the Smiths, he could rarely set a foot wrong, but sometime after releasing his best solo album, Your Arsenal, in 1992, the British music press turned on him and he was not much better than a pariah during the mid-'90s heyday of Brit-pop, the very time that he should have been celebrated as one of the great figures of British pop music, particularly since the Smiths inspired every band of note, from Suede and Blur to Oasis and Pulp. By the time he released Maladjusted in the summer of 1997, he was a forgotten legend, not even given approval of his album art, and instead of cranking out records to the diehards, he chose to move to Los Angeles and wait out the storm. He stayed quiet for seven years. During that time, fashions changed again, as they're prone to do, as Brit-pop turned toward the sullen art rock of Radiohead and Coldplay, the mainstream filled up with teen pop, and American rock music was either stuck in the death throes of grunge and punk-pop or in emo's heart-on-sleeve caterwauling, which owed no little debt to Mozzer's grandly theatric introspection in the Smiths. Instead of being seen as a has-been, as he had been in the latter half of the '90s, Morrissey was seen as a giant, name checked by artists as diverse as Ryan Adams and OutKast, so the time was ripe for a comeback. But Morrissey had waited long enough to do it on his terms, rejecting major labels for Sanctuary (on the condition that they revive the reggae imprint Attack Records) and recording You Are the Quarry with his longtime touring band, with producer Jerry Finn, best-known for his work with neo-punk bands blink-182, Sum 41, and Green Day.
Finn's presence suggests that Morrissey might be changing or modernizing his sound, designing a large-scale comeback, but that runs contrary to his character. Apart from some subtleties -- the glam on Your Arsenal, the gentleness on Vauxhall and I, the prog rock on Southpaw Grammar -- he's worked the same territory ever since Viva Hate, and there's no reason for him to change now. And he doesn't. There are no surprises on You Are the Quarry. It delivers all the trademark wit, pathos, and surging mid-tempo guitar anthems that have been his stock-in-trade since the beginning of his solo career. It's not so much a return to form as it is a simple return, Morrissey picking up where he left off with Maladjusted, improving on that likeable album with a stronger set of songs and more muscular music (even if no single is as indelible as "Alma Matters"). If You Are the Quarry had been delivered in 1999, it would have been written off as more of the same, but since it's coming out at the end of a seven-year itch, he's back in fashion, so its reception is very warm. Frankly, it's nice to have his reputation restored, but that oversells the album, suggesting that it's either a breakthrough or a comeback when it's neither. It's merely a very good Morrissey album, living up to his legacy without expanding it greatly. But after such a long wait, that's more than enough.