Morrissey's new album 'a stunning career high'
Author Evelyn Waugh once noted: “Embalming is so widely practised in California that many believe it to be a legal obligation.”
Now that he’s out of sight in a land where the body does not decay, it’s easy for the casual observer to regard Morrissey as some eternally youthful deity. The chap who had his first hit with The Smiths’ single Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now when he was 25.
That was 30 years ago. Stephen Patrick Morrissey is 55, and next week will release his tenth solo studio album. Expectations are forever high of the man Robert Sandall once described as “the vaudevillian eccentric who lit up the grey world of indie rock.”
Considering how most of the music greats developed artistic staggers in middle-age, Morrissey might be forgiven a quality control wobble. However he steps into the ring more muscular, more ripped, than the rumour mill, with its stories of ill-health and fractured relationships, would have us expect.
Producer Joe Chiccarelli cut his teeth in the 1970s as an engineer on Frank Zappa albums. He toughens up Morrissey’s sound, while incorporating his growing penchant for Latin flavourings, and adds further sonic menace to the waves of vitriol and sarcasm.
The process of writing his acclaimed Autobiography may have helped sharpen Morrissey’s quill. Certainly, the bons mots come fast and furious.
Age hasn’t mellowed Morrissey. His rage, and the sophistication of its delivery, can be viewed as following a distinguished line first given shape by Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Jonathan Swift.
On the title track, with soaring voice, he berates us for not questioning how the government spend the taxes we pay. This is subversive pop as challenging as anything foisted on the electorate by folkniks back in the days of We Shall Overcome. “Oh you poor little fool, each time you vote you support the process,” he trills.
He’s still protesting the killing of animals. The shortest track here, The Bullfighter Dies, with Herb Albert-style trumpet intro, is a chortling riposte at a sporting industry that glorifies torturing and killing dumb beasts. Morrissey’s response on hearing the bullfighter has copped it is a flamboyant, “Nobody cries, because we all want the bull to survive.”
Romance, or lust, is also on the agenda with the radio friendly operatic pop swirl of Kiss Me A Lot. “When you kissed me all over, then, kiss me all over again.”
The melodramatic Smiler With Knife sounds as if it could have been written for an off-Broadway musical. As befits a man who once ran a fanzine dedicated to the New York Dolls, Staircase at the University rattles along as if propelled by my old mate drummer Jerry Nolan. A mix of Behan and Wilde, Mountjoy (“We all lose”) is an epic ballad of despair.
These twelve tracks represent Morrissey’s most consistent, most entertaining and most acerbic collection yet. A fine achievement for a performer who’s been deftly re-imagining the cartography of pop since he teamed up with Johnny Marr in 1982.