Release Date: July 15, 2014
Label: Harvest Records
Thirty-plus years in the music business haven’t changed what makes Morrissey tick: He still relishes railing against social injustice, and still quite audibly enjoys the power of song. While George Michael or Michael Stipe, his original peers, have been sidelined by sliding sales or lack of passion, Morrissey keeps speaking to and for several generations of outsiders. And whereas Madonna’s been usurped by Lady Gaga and U2’s been upended by Coldplay, no other entertainer has come along to steal Morrissey’s script or audience. There remains but one of him, and although his inner light has occasionally flickered or dimmed, not even a long line of illnesses and tour cancellations has snuffed it out.
That’s not to say all’s well in Moz-land. His 10th solo set is arguably his bitterest. Unlike most of its predecessors, it’s low on comic relief: There’s only one truly upbeat song in which nobody dies, “Kiss Me a Lot,” and even here Moz’s single-mindedness is strikingly desperate – rather than building and varying a theme, he mostly just incants the title. Morrissey has never been more relentlessly literal than he is throughout this album: To make a point, he strikes hard, without subtlety.
“Each time you vote you support the process,” he argues three times in the opening title track, his bleakest and least rational rendering of humanity. In “I’m Not a Man,” he disowns his sex with a fury so scathing he rarely bothers to spit out a rhyme worthy of his skills. (Notable exception: “Beefaroni/ Ah, but lonely”). “Earth Is the Loneliest Planet of All” doesn’t deliver much insight beyond “Humans are not really very humane.” Sorry, Moz, you’ve done existential despair far better.
Instead of nuance, he courts outrage: As its title screams, “Kick the Bride Down the Aisle” flirts with misogynist violence. Morrissey’s written much of his smartest and most sympathetic work – from the Smiths’ “Girl Afraid” to his own “Mama Lay Softly on the Riverbed” – about women, so it doesn’t make much sense that he’s using a lazy-lass-as-cow metaphor for the album’s second attack on conventional gender roles. We all know this militant vegetarian adores bovines.
Since the Smiths’ days of “Sweet and Tender Hooligan,” Moz has also courted thugs, and “Smiler with Knife” takes his one-sided love affair to its logical conclusion. Here his beloved brut aims to cut out the same-sex desire in himself that’s mirrored back at him from his prey, dear old Moz. “See in me the side of you that sometimes makes you jump with fright,” the song opens before blurring the distinctions between penetration and murder: “Slam in one shot gentle pain/ Someone calling out my name/ Sex and love are not the same.” This may be true, but in 2014 do we need a song in which homophobia is romanticized, much less one that ends with the soon-to-be-dead victim reassuring his assailant, “Trust me when I say you’ll be OK”?
Although critics of Morrissey’s solo career have justifiably argued that his post-Bona Drag ensembles haven’t met the Smiths’ lofty bar, World Peace Is None of Your Business is the first Morrissey album that’s often stronger musically than it is lyrically. Longtime tunesmith Alain Whyte is gone: These songs are co-written by guitarists Boz Boorer and Jessie Tobias, or their newer band mate, keyboardist Gustavo Manzur. And while this isn’t Moz’s catchiest batch, it’s his most unrelentingly dramatic: The Shins/My Morning Jacket producer Joe Chiccarelli culminates the rock opera thread that begun in earnest with 2004’s You Are the Quarry. Where there was rockabilly punk during the Whyte era, there are now many more flavors – glam, folk, industrial, Middle Eastern, metal, musique concrète, cabaret, art-rock, jangle-pop, and several shades of Latin. Although the thickly packed arrangements sometimes mercifully cut back to voice and guitar, this is Moz’s most sonically extravagant album. It sounds fantastic.
So does the singer himself. At 55, he’s already past the age where rock singers begin losing their high notes and vocal elasticity, but Morrissey maintains his expressiveness and power while improving his intonation: He’s a much better singer here than he was half his lifetime ago, and even when his lyrics often lack gradations of feeling, his supple croon supplies them, particularly during the pensive finale, “Oboe Concerto.” As usual, he mourns friends and idols while fretting over his own mortality. But he’s also got a dreaded ditty stuck in his head, and the anguish that provokes is far more gripping: Listen what it does to his voice, the way it rises up as if shaking loose its last remaining moorings to sanity. After all these years, few suffer more exquisitely than Morrissey.
Even this, though, pales next to “Staircase at the University.” Lyrically, it’s as grim as everything else: Done in by pressure to excel at school, a student commits suicide. Ostensibly, there’s nothing but cruelty: Morrissey only notes that her head split three ways. But the pleading way he sings the song’s multiple hooks supplies the sympathy that his words deny, and her release from scholarly slavery turns to celebration: Check those unexpectedly soulful woodwinds and horns, the slapping handclaps, the swooning synth strings, and that masterful Spanish guitar crescendo. Not only it his most sing-along-able anthem since “Everyday Is Like Sunday,” it’s the one blatantly danceable cut in Morrissey’s entire discography. “Staircase” sounds like the Killers sounding like him, and it drives like a smash. Let’s see if radio can overlook the dead girl.