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The pope of mope’s recent work is a mixed bag

Sparks of Morrissey's characteristic derision and romantic angst abound in the songs that make up his new album Low In High School

Morrissey at the 2011 Glastonbury Festival in England. Photo: Getty Images
Morrissey at the 2011 Glastonbury Festival in England. Photo: Getty Images

There’s always a heightened sense of anticipation in the run-up to a new Morrissey album. This time the hype was greater. Partly because of Twitter. Two months before the outspoken, controversial and often contrarian singer’s 11th album, Low In High School, was released, a Twitter account, @officialmoz, was created. Quite clearly a marketing tactic, the first two tweets from that handle were teasers: “Spent the day in bed...", said the first one; “OR WA CA AZ UT CO MO IL MI DC NY PA MA", said the second.

Morrissey fans went crazy trying to make sense of what was going on. The first one was easy; it was the title of one of the songs on the soon-to-be-released new album. But it was the second that spawned frenzied theories—was it a cryptic code? An acronym for new lyrics? The speculation raged. It was, in fact, a list of abbreviations for states in the US, presumably where Morrissey would play forthcoming gigs. A couple of days later, Spent The Day In Bed was released as a single. The countdown to the album’s launch had begun.

Then when Low In High School was released in its entirety, at first listen you couldn’t be blamed if you wondered what to make of it. If you were one of Morrissey’s legendarily dedicated fans, there would be no such problem. They’d unquestioningly love his new album and swoon over each one of the dozen songs. But such fans of England’s 58-year-old Pope of Mope (real name: Steven Patrick Morrissey but known affectionately as Moz, Mozza, Mozzer, or the Sage of Salford) can sometimes be in denial. Because Morrissey’s new album is a mixed bag. It starts off well. On the first song, My Love I’d Do Anything For You, against the background of a grand theatrical sound, Morrissey starts with his disdain for popular media: “Teach your kids to recognize and to despise all the propaganda/Filtered down by the dead echelons mainstream media." “Society’s hell," he sings in his trademark tenor, “you need me just as I need you." He’s in familiar territory. Morrissey’s lyrics always have something that anyone who’s discontented with the hypocrisy of the establishment can readily identify.

Such sparks of Morrissey’s characteristic derision and romantic angst abound in the songs that make up the new album, yet it is not the same as some of his fabulous earlier albums. Low In High School is not an unsatisfying album to listen to. Just that it isn’t as pleasurable as what we have heard from the ex-Smiths’ frontman since 1988 when his first solo album, Viva Hate, came out. This was shortly after guitarist Johnny Marr had left The Smiths and Morrissey disbanded the rather fine British indie band from Manchester. Viva Hate marked the first of a series of albums from Moz and everyone who likes his music has favourites among them. Mine are 1992’s Your Arsenal and 2004’s You Are The Quarry. Your Arsenal’s glam rock twinned with the 1970s phenomenon of British football fans’ violence and its timeless songs such as You’re Gonna Need Someone On Your Side, and We’ll Let You Know, made it a classic. You Are the Quarry, on the other hand, came seven years after his previous album, Maladjusted (1997).

In the latter half of the 1990s, the surge of Britpop bands such as Oasis, Blur and others had somewhat relegated Morrissey to the sidelines and he became something of a has-been. But by the early 2000s, the euphoria over cheery Britpop had waned and the mood in popular music was conducive once again to Morrissey’s gloomy and sardonic brand of songs. You Are the Quarry became his huge comeback album. More important, on that album is what many consider his finest song, First Of The Gang To Die. During the seven-year hiatus, Morrissey had relocated to Los Angeles and the song was a requiem to a character in the mould of an American gang-leader. Since then, Morrissey has released four albums, including Low In High School. Some of them have been excellent—such as 2009’s Years Of Refusal, a milestone album that appeared to flag the singer’s middle-aged angst.

Others, such as World Peace Is None of Your Business (2014), have been less impressive. Which brings us back to his latest album. One of the things that makes Morrissey great are his lyrics—nuanced, witty and, often replete with double, even triple, entendres. Yet, those ingredients seem to be missing in his last two albums. Both World Peace... and Low In High School have songs that are much too direct in their lyrics, and, consequently, less interesting. True, there are themes that recur—his pronounced dislike for armies and war, and an empathy for Israel—but the lack of nuance sometimes jars, especially in the tedious second half of the album.

Of late Morrissey, who has never shunned from speaking his mind (the cover of his new album shows a boy holding a sign that says, “Axe the Monarchy") and who has always been a sort of enigma when it comes to his politics (Is he racist? Is he anti-immigration?) and his sexuality (Is he gay, hetero or celibate?), has managed to rankle some of his admirers. Recently, he expressed support for a rabidly anti-Islamic politician from Britain’s right-wing Ukip; and famously backed Britain’s policy of exiting the European Union. But that doesn’t take away from his legacy: an archive of great music, first as part of The Smiths, and then when he went solo.

On my recurrent playlist is one of his really early performances, a grainy YouTube video of The Smiths performing live at Hamburg’s Rockpalast in 1984. It’s an hour-plus set and the slim, 25-year-old bespectacled Morrissey is sporting a shirt, open till his waist, and doing spirited versions of Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, Girl Afraid, Pretty Girls Make Graves; and many more. Watch it; and be prepared to be converted by the Pope of Mope. First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

The Lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘First Of The Gang To Die’ by Morrissey from ‘You Are The Quarry’

2. ‘Spent The Day In Bed’ by Morrissey from ‘Low In High School’

3. ‘Frankly, Mr Shankly’ by The Smiths from ‘The Queen Is Dead’

4. ‘Alsatian Cousin’ by Morrissey from ‘Viva Hate’

5. ‘Sorry Doesn’t Help’ by Morrissey from ‘Years Of Refusal’

Sanjoy Narayan tweets @sanjoynarayan

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