Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Here's to Many More of Dissent: Morrissey's Years of Refusal

I wasn't hugely fond of Morrissey's last album, Ringleader of the Tormentors, nor was I terribly impressed by the That's How People Grow Up single that released last year as part of the latest Greatest Hits package. To be fair, Morrissey is one of those artists who have been around so long that it gets more and more difficult to make a grand impression while retaining the originality that drew fans to you in the first place. Nonetheless I always look forward to a new release from Morrissey and his latest, Years of Refusal, is no exception. My initial listen of the record made me quite happy if only for the fact it sounded very different from the slow-moving Ringleader of the Tormentors - in fact, Years of Refusal puts the savage passion of earlier, more youthful times back into Morrissey's repertoire.

Maybe it all comes down to which parts you love most about Morrissey; for me, it's the acrid wit and apt descriptions of kicking out against a world you don't fit into, and Years of Refusal bring those aspects back into the foreground with a vital rage and potency. Maybe my personality just gels better with this vituperative Morrissey than with a loved-up Morrissey (in some ways, I think Morrissey has always been there to make me feel better about my semi-autistic tendency to crave being alone). Now that I've had a few more listens of the latest record, I can temper some of my excitement with a little more perspective; I still greatly enjoy the album, but there are times when the lyrics aren't as witty as they could be or as witty as they have been in the past, and when wit is one of your biggest strengths, it can get disappointing. There are also times when the boundless energy seems to overtake the vocals in a clumsier way; it's kind of the same feel I got from Morrissey's performance of This Charming Man on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross a week ago - the delicate, nuanced touch of Marr was discarded for a ragged, bolshy dynamic that ruined the song for me.

The album opens with a blinder called Something is Squeezing My Skull, which sets the crashing-snare-buzzsaw-guitar tone that dominates the record. It also features some of the best lyrics on Years of Refusal, including "The motion of taxis excites me/When you peel it back and bite me," while resonating with my own feelings of skull-crushing stress and depression, being frantically opposed to being drugged out of existence for survival and for achieving the normalcy of others. I'm not quite as thrilled with the following two songs, Mama Lay Softly on the Riverbed and Black Cloud, which tend to get a bit overblown musically and not very strong lyrically. The latter sounds a little Don't Fear the Reaperish at the beginning and has uninspired lines like "I can woo you/I can amuse you/but there is nothing I can do to make you mine."

However, the recently released single, I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris, breaks through the of the previous two tracks and absolutely soars. It has a delicacy not found on most of the songs on this album and allows Moz's voice to unfold in beautiful, mournful waves. This is followed by another strong track, All You Need is Me, which has, too, already released as a single, but as part of the Greatest Hits package last year - I, myself, hadn't been aware of it until I heard it on this album. It expresses a similar self-assured sentiment to The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get, and it is definitely a stand-out track with a gritty, romping guitar sound and a vocal dripping with sarcastic sneers and an arch sense of self-importance, not to mention great lyrics like "You roll your eyes up to the skies/Mock horrified/But you're still here/All you need is me" and "I was a small fat child in a welfare house/There was only one thing I ever dreamed about/and fate has just handed it to me." A Latin influence with flamenco guitar and mariachi trumpets (perhaps due to Morrissey's surreal mutual love affair with Mexico and Latinos) pervades the brisk When Last I Spoke to Carol. The narrative tells a story of a woman who gave up pretending and living, which ultimately are the same thing in this song. While the musical style can seem a bit jarring and bizarre in relation to the subject matter, it does exude a palpable air of anxious energy that emulates Carol's edging around the narrow ledge of her life in abrupt, rehearsed steps.

I'm still fairly underwhelmed by That's How People Grow Up, but the next two tracks make up for it and make the album for me. One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell begins with scattershot drums and roiling guitars that counter Morrissey's rich, smooth vocals perfectly. It is both sad and urgent in its depiction of mortality and passage of time. My absolutely favourite song on the album is It's Not Your Birthday Anymore, which feels like the more dramatic companion piece to Unhappy Birthday from the Smiths' days. It begins gently with small cymbal flourishes and a heartbeat of bass drum before exploding into dramatic chorus, showering the object of the vengeful sentiments in emotional shrapnel. The soft-loud-soft dynamics shiver through me, and when Morrissey reaches for those high notes, my heart crashes through my epiglottis; the intuitive shift in melody and tempo in the interlude with clarinets provides a musical respite, but continues the savagery verbally with the lyric "All of the gifts that they gave can't compare in any way/To the love I am now giving to you/Right here, right now on the floor." The unbridled vocal acrobatics that begin about a minute from the end are also refreshingly strange and un-Morrissey-like. On You Were Good In Your Time, Morrissey speaks to an unnamed washed-up idol with tenderness that blankets the subliminal abstract noise and muttering voices before the latter take over completely. One of the more disappointing, throwaway tracks is Sorry Doesn't Help, which most seem to agree would have been better off languishing as a forgotten b-side, but the record concludes with I'm Okay By Myself, another one of my favourite compositions. It begins with the familiar Moz wit with the sardonic first line: "Could this be an arm around my waist?...Well, surely the hand contains a knife." And with its driving guitars and desperate howls, this song closes the album in the same rollicking, self-affirming spirit that it opened with. No apologies for being "disturbing" and having a propensity for solitude.

Years of Refusal is a fantastic shot in the arm and reminds me that Morrissey can still create brilliant vitriol and fight with the energy he always had. Yes, I feel let down by some of the lyrics, but I'm not going to side with some of the recent criticism that claims this is a step backwards into some sort of adolescent petulance. These critics seem to assume that maturation equals mellowing out and resigning yourself to the pleasures and mentality of the status quo you rebelled against as a young person; that's not how all people grow up. I want to keep fighting as I age, and I don't think it's immature to want to remain apart from society's expectations. Like Johnny Rotten once said, "Anger is energy." I suppose I feel that I can get orchestral love songs anywhere, but there are few that I can turn to for reassurance that I'm not alone in wanting to be alone. And I think Morrissey effectively answers those critics of this album by the lines in Something is Squeezing My Skull: "I know by now you think I should have straightened myself out/Thank you. Drop dead."

All You Need Is Me - Morrissey

It's Not Your Birthday Anymore - Morrissey


Rol said...

I'm still waiting for my copy (if it's not here tomorrow, there will be trouble!) so I've only heard most of these songs once, but I'm encouraged by what I have heard and by your review. Like you, though I found much to admire in his last album, it didn't stay with me as long as many others have - yes, I think he was almost a little too happy, lyrically. I'm glad to hear the anger is back in his songs - even if he seems quite mellow and content in interviews.

JC said...

I remember when I had the energy to write reviews like that.

Wonderful stuff.

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