Friday, February 27, 2009

Years of Refusal Is Fantastic

is one of the rare artists that completely divide the listening public; you either are or are not a Morrissey fanatic. Basically, nobody likes Morrissey; either he has been an influential figure in your life, or you hate him/don’t know who he is. As such, Moz has existed in this odd state of perpetual comeback. Every several years he drifts back into the favor of the critical community. His records are shockingly similar, all the way back to his post-Smiths Viva Hate heyday. But if we are truly being honest with ourselves (and our ears), than we must concede that BIG COMEBACK albums like You Are The Quarry are really not all that dissimilar to critically dismissed pieces like Maladjusted. It’s almost as if we (as a record buying/critical community) tire of the Mozzer’s heart on sleep mope every couple years. But then, when the next record comes out, critics fall all over themselves proclaiming it his BIG RETURN TO FORM, when really, it’s nearly indistinguishable from the work that preceded it. This is a trend that goes back to the beginning, as critics have worshipped or slaughtered at the altar of Moz with each album: Viva Hate – Brilliant, Kill Uncle – Awful, Your Arsenal – Brilliant, Vauxhall & I – OK, Southpaw Grammar – Terrible, etc, etc, etc.

That being said, each Morrissey record is always split into several sections - an anthemic lead single, a clutch of classics, a couple throwaways, etc. Years of Refusal then is no exception, though I must say that Moz does sound incredibly revitalized. Not to appear hypocritical to all that I have just written, I must say that I loved Maladjusted, thought You Are The Quarry was OK, and totally loved Ringleader of the Tormentors, so I don’t fit in with the critical trend. At the risk of skewing this critique, I must offer full disclosure: the truth is, I’m a professed Morrissey fanatic. OK, there it is, you know where I stand..

So, Years of Refusal? Every track crackles with life and vitality. For several years I was in favor of Moz dumping longtime songwriting partner (at this point much longer than Johnny Marr) Boz Boorer. However, what seems to have been truly necessary was to switch producers. The late Jerry Finn (You Are The Quarry) chose to record the band live in the studio, and combined with Morrissey’s famous penchant for knocking out vocal tracks in one take, the result is truly exploding with energy. Opener “Something Is Squeezing My Skull” sparks with punk rock guitars and features a lead vocal a full octave higher than Moz normally sings. Live favorite (and B side) “Don’t Make Fun of Daddy’s Voice” also features this approach but unfortunately is not featured here. This is clearly his most “rock” album since the Mick Ronson helmed the glamtastic Your Arsenal (one of the best albums of the 1990’s). The band consists of the usual cast, yet a fresh energy is present especially in the Gary Day-ish basslines heard previously on Your Arsenal and Vauxhall & I.

This album flies bye at a breakneck pace, as the fantastic Mama Lay Softly On the Riverbed and Black Cloud rip through like a lightning strike, when (the aforementioned anthemic) “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris” flows in, all “Alma Matters”/”Interesting Drug” – in other words, doing what Moz lead singles from “Everyday Is Like Sunday” to “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get” do – trademarked epic melancholy as it should be.

One of the most overlooked aspects of Morrissey’s songwriting is his penchant for tongue in check, gallows humor, but that is not really present here – it seems like this time he really means it, especially on the crooning and atmospheric “You Were Good In Your Time” and “The Last Time I Saw Carol”, which tread similar territory to “Late Night Maudlin Street” and “My Love Life”. Yet none of this can prepare you for one of the greatest songs in the Morrissey canon, “It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore”. Moz howls and shrieks, whispers and speaks in conversational tones on this bombastic full-scale epic. It’s as moving as any song in his repertoire, and that is really saying something. This is the best song by anyone so far this year, and should be a strong contender for song of the year come December. Album closer “I’m OK By Myself” is the best ending to a Moz record since Your Arsenal landed with“Tomorrow”.

The bottom line is that I cannot imagine Morrissey making a better album than this. Should he retire in the next five years as he has stated, then this is a brilliant swansong. Rather than go out with a whimper, he goes out raging against the dying of the light. I for one would like to follow at least one more critical cycle, and as always will enjoy the ride, whatever the critical response.

The Verdict: (a very strong) 4 out of 5 stars

PS - The cover art is absolutely fantastic too.