Monday, February 16, 2009

Refusing to Budge

Morrissey - Years Of Refusal (Polydor, 2009)

Describing a Morrissey album as a bit patchy is a bit like saying a packet of peanuts may contain nuts. With the exception of ‘Vauxhall and I’ and perhaps ‘Viva Hate’, all of his solo albums to date have featured the odd clunker or two. The least favourable reviews of ‘Years of Refusal’ have dubbed it his worst album since 1997’s ‘career nadir’ ‘Maladjusted’. Would it be too controversial to state that I don’t think ‘Maldajusted’ is all that bad? It contains two of his very best songs in ‘Trouble Loves Me’ and ‘Satan Rejected My Soul’ and one of his very worst in ‘Roy’s Keen’. I certainly prefer it to ‘Kill Uncle’ anyway. It’s also worth noting that I also prefer it to the much lauded ‘Ringleader of the Tormentors’. Yes, that album had three great tracks in ‘Dear God, Please Help Me’, ‘Life is a Pigsty’ and ‘At Last I Am Born’, but the rest of it was largely generic midtempo rock.

Most commentators are portraying ‘Years of Refusal’ as a regressive step after the candour and grandness of ‘Ringleader’. Production is from the late Jerry Finn, who also helmed the triumphant comeback ‘You are the Quarry’. Much of the musical backdrop is tough, unsentimental and unsubtle, dominated by the pounding, dirty rhythm section of Matt and Solomon Walker (how many drummers has Moz dispensed with now?). In a sense it’s appropriate given the defiance and ugly nature of many of the lyrics. We’ve been here before – but it’s rarely sounded this aggressive or clamorous.

In what is now typical of Morrissey’s attitude to contractual obligations (and, indirectly, toward his paying fans), two of the tracks have already been released as extra tracks on last year’s pointless ‘Greatest Hits’ set. Neither of them is altered in any way here, although their thunderous chugging perhaps makes more sense in context.

There’s nothing here that will cause controversy in the manner of ‘National Front Disco’ or ‘Bengali in Platforms’ but there are times amidst this dislikeable mix of self-aggrandisement, self-pity and self-parody that one yearns for something more outrageous. Yet again there’s a parade of uncharitable public figures (or at least, uncharitable towards Steven Patrick Morrissey) – the ‘uncivil servants’ and ‘a QC without humility’. Then there’s a lot of really rather churlish and tedious moaning. I still think there’s a good song to be written about the benefits of long term singledom but ‘I’m OK By Myself’ certainly isn’t it. Morrissey merely sounds like a moody teenager here. ‘That’s How People Grow Up’ seems to suggest that maturing means accepting that you are doomed to romantic failure. ‘I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris’ sounds nice enough, but it’s another of those songs presenting its anti-hero as essentially incapable of reciprocal love. Last night I dreamt that Morrissey rewrote the same song again. Oh look, it was a premonition!

Moz used to be able to do this sort of thing with knowing humour but for most of ‘Years of Refusal’ he just sounds morose and unpleasant. ‘All You Need Is Me’ audaciously accuses the world of preferring to carp on about him than address its more significant problems. So why does he spend even more time and energy admonishing everyone for criticising him if the criticism itself is so trivial? If Morrissey is simply looking for people to admire him again, he needs to provide us with some evidence that he’s more than just a rather nasty and petty individual.

That being said, some of the nastiness on ‘Years of Refusal’ is characteristically delicious. There’s a run of superb songs in the second half of the set incorporating ‘One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell’, ‘It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore’ and ‘You Were Good In Your Time’. The latter two stand out for veering away from the brash, angry style of the rest of the album, instead sounding lush and extravagant in the best possible way. If one thing has progressed and improved during Moz’s solo career it’s his voice. Once an idiosyncratic but wavering and unmusical device, it has in recent years become an instrument of real depth and character. These songs provide the most supportive musical context for that expression. There’s also the splendid ‘When Last I Spoke To Carol’, a song as curt and devastating as ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’, bolstered by a military rhythm and some Mariachi horns, not stylistic features that we’d usually associate with Moz.

Even when he’s stuck in the more generic rock mode, he can still sometimes throw out a gem. As he rattles off a gleeful list of anti-depressant medication, the excoriating opener ‘Something Is Squeezing My Skull’ at least demonstrates that Moz is still able to articulate the absurdity that accompanies the pain in modern living. This distinctive brand of black humour has always been a hallmark of his best work. We could probably have done with a bit more of it.

‘Years of Refusal’ is a crisp and brutally insistent record that finds Morrissey in particularly fine voice. The rare moments of adventure suggest that there are still possibilities for a late period masterpiece should he choose to focus more on the experiments and less on the reliable, overly familiar filler. Perhaps we wouldn’t have Morrissey be anything other than a stubborn, isolated icon now. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that it’s a weakness that whilst this album has plenty of bite, it doesn’t have much in the way of humour or real feeling.

1 comment:

johnkell said...

I enjoyed that review - though I still feel a bit unsure of what to expect from the album! Trying to keep the expectations low...

Incidentally, I think Viva Hate has all three of its clunkers at the end, which is why it doesn't seem as conspicuously inconsistent... Though Bengali in Platforms is lyrically unpalatable (but musically pretty).