“Life is very long/when you’re lonely.”
That’s the closing couplet of “The Queen is Dead”– from The Smiths’ 1986 LP. Eight albums and twenty-three lonely years later, Morrissey is still selling that same line–to arenas around the world packed to the gills with hyperventilating, sexually ambiguous young men with perfect haircuts. And whether he’s savoring the delicious irony of singing “Unloveable” six nights a week to a sweating, screaming crowd, or just obliviously sobbing just offstage, the effect is the same…it’s…well, here’s another quote.
“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
And while his newest studio effort, Years of Refusal, doesn’t constitute a total loss of $13.95, the overall effect of the album is something like grasping the decidedly shorter end of a stick. On the far end of the stick-and this stick is probably a metaphor for another prolonged career hiatus-there’s an incredible album, a new lease on life for the Mozzer, and a Johnny Cash-worthy winter romance with relevancy and credibility. On this end of the stick, there’s a glossy little album that floats along on slick production and stock-in-trade Morrissey moves. This is also accompanied by a lamé shirt.
Like most bad things, Years of Refusal starts out on a very good foot with the charging “Something Is Squeezing My Skull”, a chugging, punky number that highlights everything good about Morrissey’s new touring band. Easily the closest Morrissey’s come to his humble beginnings in the late-70s’ Manchester punk scene, the entire song is a snarling crescendo of tandem guitars from the Boz Boorer/Matt Tobias riff factory, closing with a superhuman drum performance from (ex-Filter/Smashing Pumpkins) secret weapon Matt Walker.
The rest of the album doesn’t fare so well. On lead single “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris”, Morrissey rests so heavily on his laurels that they must have left a permanent impression on his backside. Boorer and Moz make a dead-on approximation of what The Smiths might have sounded like if they’d lasted one more album: chiming 12-string guitar, a tambourine taped to the cymbals, canned strings. To his credit, Morrissey turns in some of the best vocals he’s done, with greater confidence and range than he’s had in years–it’s just a shame his lyrics refuse to grow up. Opening line: “In the absence of your love/and in the absence of human touch/I’ve decided that I’m/throwing my arms around Paris/because only stone and steel accept my love.”
A good deal of why the rest of the record is so boring is due to the fact that Morrissey (and Decca) refuse to get hip to the new rules of the record industry. Years of Refusal falls prey to both major defects of the pre-digital music business. Firstly, it’s at least three tracks too long. Boorer and Morrissey, whose motto apparently reads: “if it ain’t broke, write the same song twelve times,” could have easily cut some of the fat from the album–and saved time and money. When customers can buy by the song, why even include obviously weaker fare like “One Day, Goodbye Will Be Farewell” or “Sorry Doesn’t Help”? The nail in the coffin is that Years of Refusal is dramatically front-loaded. Morrissey crams all the best tracks into the first twenty minutes, leaving the patient listener to trudge through filler tracks, excepting the brilliant “It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore”, all the way through the last chorus of “I’m O.K. By Myself”–which doesn’t feel particularly like a last song. No “Death Trip” or “Jungleland” here.
Much of this is probably due to how good Morrissey has become at just being Morrissey. When half of England nursed a weird crush on that gangly lad, it wasn’t despite his weird vocal tics, cryptic lyrics, and obvious discomfort with the Smiths’ meteoric rise to acclaim; those were the very causes of Morrisseymania. It’s the level of comfort Morrissey enjoys, knowing that there will always be a loving audience and a doting brigade of bootlicking critics, that allows him to turn in lyric sheets dripping with pasteurized despair and cliché sentimentalisms (see “Mama Lay Softly On the Riverbed”).
It’s very possible that he knows this. In a recent comment to Filter magazine, Morrissey stated that he is considering retirement after this album, using words like “lack of imagination” and “lack of dignity”. And while Years of Refusal is a mostly unexciting album, it’s solid, with enough good songs to flesh out setlists while still saving room for Viva Hate and Smiths-era mainstays–certainly not a hit to the dignity of the man “indie cred” was invented for. And a “solid album” would be such a poor way to end such a vibrant and dramatic career. He could have easily done it after You Are the Quarry–his 2004 comeback album, leaving the world to wonder what might have been. He could have done it after finally coming to a cease-fire with celibacy on 2006’s Ringleader of the Tormentors. But not now. Not after an album that’s merely decent. What Morrissey needs is a slow boat ride through unfamiliar waters, not another “solid” album and successful tour. Because he really only has two options left: either create an album so anti-Morrissey that it’s a smashing failure, a down-in-flames tailspin like Black Sabbath’s Never Say Die; that, or shoot for the late-career metamorphosis a la Scott Walker.
I’m not worried. This guy has a history. Anyone who titles a song “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” or “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” isn’t going settle for anticlimax.