Morrissey: Years of Refusal

Attack/Lost Highway
Music •••• Sound ••••
Okay, one of the labels involved with releasing this new Morrissey album is the alt-country leader Lost Highway, the opening line of the opening track is "I'm doing very well," and Morrissey is holding a baby on the album's cover.

The questions this could raise.

But, no, let me assure you: Morrissey hasn't gone country, he hasn't found happiness, and he hasn't gone soft. He's every bit the same cheeky, sarcastic, "call me morbid," self-infatuated whiner that made him one of the 1980s' most compelling pop stars.

Morrissey could forever use the sympathetic guitar jangle of the Smiths' Johnny Marr, but he hasn't done too much worse with the heavier hands of Boz Boorer and Jesse Tobias cranking out louder, arena-styled glam rock. It has made Moz sound a tad tougher and more self-defensive than he really is, but it's something we've come to live with.

Besides, Morrissey has always been about subtle layers and ambivalence. He keeps a piece of steel clutched inside his velvet glove at all times. And on Years of Refusal, only seconds after telling you he's doing very well, he offers this: "Thank you, drop dead." After all, that opening track is called "Something Is Squeezing My Skull."

Yes, this isn't exactly the guy you bring home for Christmas - unless you're looking to upset the entire family. In "Skull," he goes on to catalog his medicine cabinet: "No true friends in modern life / Diazepam (that's Valium), temazepam . . . lithium . . . HRT, ECT / How long must I stay on this stuff?" This walking Physicians' Desk Reference doesn't get specific with the side effects, but we can be pretty certain that the album that follows is the direct result of this kind of pharmaceutically fueled worldview, and that it's more than just dry mouth that's got Morrissey down.

Jeff Beck adds a guitar for "Black Cloud," which is good for random trivia but not a pivotal guest moment. Mark Isham is sandwiched into three cuts as well. But Morrissey's band is already in fighting form, and its wall of sound doesn't yield much space. In the end, of course, even with a little extra guitar flash here and a touch of keyboards there, the focal point is still the unhinged narrator, who doesn't always manufacture a new melody as much as gloat over an old one with the kind of observation that knocks everything else off balance. In other words, sure, the ballad "I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris" has its musical moment, and the rocker "One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell" needs the hydraulic lift of the band, but eventually the thunder is always usurped by the sense of "Did Morrissey just sing that?"

He could never sing the phone book, but he remains a virtual book on tape for pithy aphorisms:

"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, whoopee" (in the song "All You Need Is Me")

"I was driving my car / I crashed and broke my spine / So yes, there are things worse in life than never being someone's sweetie" ("That's How People Grow Up")

"Did you really think we meant all of those syrupy, sentimental things that we said yesterday?" ("It's Not Your Birthday Anymore")

In an age of continuous Facebook and Twitter status updates, Morrissey's an old soul, taking the time to craft and frame his complaints in careful measure, still sounding like an invigorated youth even as age creeps into his hairline. Let us praise the humorous grump for sticking to his discontent.

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