Tuesday, February 17, 2009

We can talk about this now? Good.

Wait, no... seriously this time.

I know. I know, back in 2004, I said Morrrissey's You Are the Quarry marked an altogether new sonic chapter of the singer's body of work, with his sense of lyrical purpose rediscovered and pared down to its least-wordy point yet. And I know, in 2006, I said Ringleader of the Tormentors stomped all over YATQ (to my ear, at least). I know I said Tony Visconti's cavernous production rendered the previous album rather sterile and safe by comparison; that Morrissey's lyrics reached higher levels of pathos, comedy, perversity and sexual tension (all the things Mozfans want from a Morrissey album). But still. I should've known. I should've recognized he's capable of better-still work, more consistent albums, more... something. More of the reasons I get this excited whenever Morrissey puts out a new album or goes on tour. So with that in mind: I promise, this time he's really done it. He's really made another classic Morrissey album to be ranked amongst his best solo records.

Years of Refusal, released today in the U.S. on the Lost Highway label, falls sonically somewhere in between his two previous albums: With producer Jerry Finn (who worked on YATQ ) returning to the boards, the album has both the loose, lively feel of ROTT and the punchiness of YATQ. And it rocks harder than both of those albums: Morrissey's band throughout the '90s was made up largely of musicians drawn from the English rockabilly circuit, but nowadays those stalwarts are outnumbered by younger L.A. session guys who excel at the kind of garagey pop-punk Finn knew so well how to produce. Morrissey's voice is supple to the point of being utterly unhinged at the album's most frenetic spots, and so frequently his lyrics demonstrate his ability to sing something hilarious and devastating in alternate breaths, all the while reveling in the sounds of the English language. Take, for example, one verse from “One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell:”

I have been thinking, what with my final brain cell,
How time grips you sliding in its spell,
And before you know, goodbye will be farewell,
And you will never see the one you love again,
And the smiling children tell you that you smell.
Just look at me — a savage beast,
I've got nothing to sell,
And when I die, I want to go to hell.
And that's when goodbye should be farewell.

But arguably the most important thing about Years of Refusal is one that's not as readily obvious as how smart the lyrics are (they are) or how catchy the vocal melodies are (they are — in the 26 years since the first Smiths single, Morrissey has only continued to grow and grow as a composer of melodies), or how well the band plays (very well, though unlike the stretch of records Morrissey and T'Lads made between 1992 and 1997, which sounded like “band records,” here it sounds like they're more or less providing an atmosphere whereby Moz can properly get into his game). The most important thing is that it produces the greatest number of pretty much ridiculous moments of any Morrissey solo album in many, many years.

I can explain that. There's always been something a little ridiculous in certain of Morrissey's lyrics and vocalizations. This is, after all, the man who once rhymed “so ugly” with “oh, hug me.” The man who once turned “Let me get my hands/On your mammary glands/And let me get your head/On the conjugal bed” into the chorus of song. The man who ended a stinging kiss-off of a song by repeating the caveat “Still, it was a good lay” over and over. Who's delivered a truckload what I can only call “voice solos,” long passages of riffing on “oh-oh-ohs” and “la-da-da-da-dums.” Whose first solo album ended with the sound of a guillotine falling. Who has a well-placed break for the sound of a chainsaw during the closing track of his most beautiful-sounding album. Morrissey's two most recent albums — notwithstanding ROTT's recurring choir of actual Italian children and bombastic orchestral “At Last I Am Born” — were just not ridiculous enough. But, oh... this time, it's on. It's evident from the opening track, “Something Is Squeezing My Skull” — itself a laugh-out-loud over-the-top title, sung in the chorus as a riotously ascending melodic line — wherein, after listing off a series of psychiatric meds, he repeats some variation on the phrase “Don't gimmeanymore!” for a full 45 seconds as the band builds into a frenzy. Four other songs peak in melodramatic “oh-woah-ohhs” — on closer “I'm OK By Myself,” that becomes nearly a minute of wordless emoting into an overdriven mic. (That song also contains one of the most entertaining enunciations of the record, where “myself” becomes “myse-e-e-oo-elf.”) Morrissey may or may not refer to himself in the first person plural on at least two songs. On “That's How People Grow Up,” the first sound is soprano Kristeen Young approximating a human theremin. “It's Not Your Birthday Anymore” builds into a pounding chorus that sounds strikingly like Moz and his band glancing to all those pop-emo youngers who claim him as an influence and handing those kids back their own template. Two songs feature mariachi-esque trumpet solos. “You Were Good in Your Time” closes with a groaning synthesizer and the sound of a brisk wind. The thing about all of these moments, throughout Morrissey's career is — when one is feeling particularly down, they feel perfect; they “go there,” and they allow the listener to come along and get lost in the overemphatic thrill of it all. And when one is feeling more or less okay, they catch one upside the head in a way that becomes... well, ideally, funny. Darkly, absurdly funny.

And the darkness matters. Years of Refusal is not without its moments where pathos crosses over into comic bathos — but the thing is, they have to pass through pathos first. And there is a startling amount of morbidity on this album — a good deal of death and some violence to boot. Take “Mama Lay Softly on the Riverbed.” Just so you know, she's lying there because she's dead, driven to suicide by life's petty frustrations. And in the final verse, the narrator promises lie down with her, to “be safe and sheltered in our graves.” “You Were Good in Your Time” is an ode to a pop star on his or her deathbed. (Remember, Morrissey's always given props to pop singers and film stars of the '50s and '60s, even pilfering dialogue from some of his favorite old films for lyrical fodder in the early days of The Smiths, and now so many of those stars who made young Moz feel, as he sings here, “not quite so deformed, uninformed and hunchbacked” are dead or very old indeed.) In “When Last I Spoke to Carol,” the very last time the narrator speaks to Carol is at her burial. Morrissey imagines an attempted assassination from a seemingly-friendly hand in “I'm OK By Myself.” He exclaims, “Let me live before I die!” in “That's How People Grow Up.” “It's Not Your Birthday Anymore” (a psychodrama as unsettling as the Moz classic “November Spawned a Monster,” in which pity for a disabled girl seems to veer into mockery) centers around a sexual assault perpetrated by an evidently disturbed narrator, his exclamation of “Do you really think we meant/All of those syrupy, sentimental things we said?” clashing with his description of “the love I am now giving to you right here, right now, on the floor.” And when human interaction doesn't erupt into violence, it still often fails to create any real interpersonal connection. “When Last I Spoke to Carol” has the narrator's doomy observations met by seemingly unrelated apparent cries for help on Carol's part. “That's How People Grow Up” addresses the futility of “looking for love,/For a love that never comes, from someone who does not exist.” “All You Need Is Me,” the sprightliest pop song on the album, is about a friendship sustained by one party's need to complain about the other, a process that helps distract him or her from the real troubles of the larger world. In “I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris,” Moz chooses to embrace a city rather than an actual person. And in “Black Cloud,” the object of his desire, who “moves in the mind,” is about as physically intangible as, well, a black cloud. Death is all around on Years of Refusal, and until it finds us personally, things don't look so good for the living.

It's been said the problem with Morrissey's solo work is that it's so much about being Morrissey, leaving little for anyone whose fanship is not so much that they're emotionally invested in Morrissey himself. Perhaps it's impossible for me to make an objective call on this, as a long-invested fan — but I disagree with that judgment. Morrissey often writes about a solitary, unhappy figure who may or may not be Morrissey — but he also writes about pitiable characters and unsavory characters, characters who rage against their fates and characters who resign themselves to those fates. Maybe these are actually all aspects of Being Morrissey — but if that's the case, there are enough aspects therein for his songs to feel universal and purposeful. Morrissey, at his best, makes the listener think not about Morrissey but about himself or herself. And that's what's going on in Years of Refusal. Thankfully. Seriously.