It’s Been a Very Bad Year: Morrissey

07/16/2014 4:00 AM |

World Peace is none of your business

If you used the former Smiths’ singer’s songs to gauge his mood, you’d assume every year was a bad year for Morrissey, but 2014 has really been a bad year for Morrissey. The World Grouchiness Icon canceled his U.S. tour due to severe illness; his proxies launched a weird public spat with longtime opener Kristeen Young, blaming her for passing along a cold she denied having. Wounded Facebook postings, and recriminations over their subsequent likes, ensued. World Peace Is None of Your Business, the album he was to tour, doesn’t turn things around. His 10th solo album is a wildly uneven thing, suggesting the line between his good and bad material to be wafer thin and, like storm clouds on the horizon, well beyond the influence of mere mortals.

There is noticeable effort on the part of the record’s performers to distinguish it from the mid-tempo, large-theater-sized rock of his more successful post-2000 releases. The palette is eclectic and continental, thick with castanets and flamenco guitars. Veteran alt-rock producer Joe Chiccarelli brings a digital crispness that’s big but sort of canned-cheesy, sprinkled with muted laser noises and handclaps that couldn’t have come from human hands. In service to a persona immutable as any in pop music, bursts of atypical weirdness should be a virtue. And yet, setting a song like “Staircase at the University” amid a familiar guitar jangle is the very thing that saves it from utter ridiculousness. Its sweep is so natural that the melodramatic details of a female student committing suicide over grade pressure seem more credible. (Her dick father, maybe, but why exactly is the girl’s boyfriend cruelly humiliating her over getting Bs on her report card? Is this a Lars von Trier movie?) Over bare Spanish guitar, it’s easier to notice Morrissey’s bitter worldview forcing his character studies. When in highest wit, his arch sourness can be good camp fun. With less elegant writing, it’s exhausting, like he couldn’t bring himself to talk to other people for years but assumes they must be miserable.

At 55, Morrissey’s singing voice is remarkably sturdy, still the same salty ham baritone from his 80s records, creaking barely if at all. The sound of it delivering an absurd line like, “I was sent here by a three-foot halfwit in a wig” with spite instead of a snicker can still spur amused disbelief. It’s formidable even when cartoonish—declaring the futility of world democracy, wincing at children, or celebrating the death of a bullfighter. Force of personality can’t save the lamer bits, though. “Kick the Bride Down the Aisle” is particularly bad, portraying a lazy, gold-digging woman eager to stuff herself with bonbons as soon as the thrown rice settles, as if it’s from a different era entirely.

“Oboe Concerto,” the last and best song here, is redemptive. It’s grand but understated, for once giving Morrissey more room to vamp than he takes. “The older generation has tried, sighed and died, which pushes me to their place in the queue,” he sings over a slow, tasteful build, less morose than what’s preceded it somehow, against all reason.