Morrissey has been freakishly successful in his attempt to separate himself from the legendary Smiths. It is an understandably difficult task for an artist to surgically remove him or herself from the original group. Probably a lot like leaving the womb. Even members of the Beatles didn’t really seem to flourish on their own (Paul McCartney is an arguable exception in several respects).
In any case, Morrissey seems to have proved his ability to stand alone. He has been pumping out hits since 1987, the year the Smiths broke up, and his new album, Years of Refusal, is no exception. The critics seem to be eating it up like drippy butter.
Morrissey’s appeal is easy to identify. He is one of the most unique and powerful front men in contemporary music. He contrasts his quirky, snide lyrics with his dramatic and potent croon, a combination that seems to leave you with a bitter taste of melancholy Manchester smog.
Morrissey’s lyrics are, to say the least, unmatched. It’s hard to beat a refrain that repeats, “Some girls are bigger than others / Some girls are bigger than others / Some girls’ mothers are bigger than other girls’ mothers.”
Despite the fact that the lyrics in this new album seem to be slightly more mature and slightly less revolutionary, they still retain the precious unpredictability that keeps our ears cocked and attentive. Morrissey starts the album with a drug hymn. In “Something Is Squeezing My Skull,” he lists several popular narcotics including Valium and lithium, and also casually mentions electroconvulsive therapy and, of course, hormone replacement therapy. In short, it’s a real finger snapper. He displays a pretty broad spectrum of emotions in that opening track alone, first knocking us down with the line, “There is no hope in modern life,” and then tickling us with the line, “The motion of taxis excites me.”
Now that I have stroked Morrissey’s ego into a coma, there is a very nasty question that lurks in the closet of every serious listener’s mind, an apprehension we must address. Do we genuinely like Morrissey’s new album, or do we respect it for the sole reason that it is an extension of the legendary concept of Morrissey?
This is a common mistake made by fans of all breeds. When faced with artistic genius, it is easy to be blinded. It is true, however, that some artists have earned the right to a full immunity (i.e. Michael Jackson, Woody Allen), but I just don’t think Morrissey could get away with fondling children or marrying his daughter at this point (on second thought, I’d probably let him slide with a little of the child fondling stuff). Anyway, the question is, is this new album any good?
Years of Refusal is distinct among the man’s discography for its stripped-down sound. Most songs contain only guitar, bass, drum and vocal tracks. That’s extremely quaint, but the truth is that the production is the cement block that is sinking this album deep into the sludge.
The hammy guitar distortion cheapens most of the sonic structure. In fact, paired with Morrissey’s throaty wail sounds extremely reminiscent of some Social Misfits (2000) song (don’t ask me why I know that).
Yeah, the guitar is beefy and powerful, but it doesn’t compliment the priceless Morrissey vocal. What happened to the jangly, dirty clean, clean dirty doodles Johnny Marr plucked out with the Smiths? I know it’s unhealthy to compare the new guitarist to the Smiths’ guitarist, but I guarantee it’s on everyone’s mind.
The truth is this album lacks a certain amount of soul that even most of Morrissey’s solo albums have. Morrissey seems to be the only human present in these recordings. He’s singing his heart out in vain, the cookie-cutter backup band just swallows up his blood, sweat and tears like the Blob.
Finally, I hate to use the analogy, but aside from the vocals, the album seems to have been stamped out of a machine. It’s rushed and there’s no time to meditate.