Morrissey has never been especially modest, but he’s always managed to soften his bombast with an air of vulnerability — as though all of his frosty, flippant talk was really just the sound of a tortured soul expressing himself the only way he knows how. Hitching his lyrics to Johnny Marr’s smart, sensible compositions amplified that effect, and through his post-Smiths days he’s continued to find ways to trade on his dual persona: a diva with a heart.
But recently, his brasher self has started to pull rank. 2004’s You Are the Quarry and 2006’s Ringleader of the Tormentors found Moz injecting some glam into his usual gloom, letting on that perhaps, at long last, he was ready to have a little fun. On Years of Refusal, the trickle has become a torrent; to hear the opening guitar assault of “Something Is Squeezing My Skull,” you’d think you were listening to Fall Out Boy.
Not that he’s grown any less morbid, mind you. It wouldn’t be Morrissey without the withering jeers (“You hiss and groan and you constantly moan, but you don’t ever go away!”), bitchy kiss-offs (“Did you really think we meant all of the syrupy, sentimental things that we said?”), and drama-queen histrionics (“Only stone and steel accept my love!”). The change is in his execution, and it comes off as the ecstatic release of an impulse long suppressed. A few songs retain the familiar acoustic jangle of old, and “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris” is the Smithsiest thing he’s recorded in years — but for every tame track there’s a barnstormer, full of vocal acrobatics and buzzsaw guitars. The relaxed six-eight swing that once dominated his oeuvre has been left for dead, replaced by charging four-four and the occasional thunderous march. There’s a new Morrissey in town.
That said, his transition into balls-out arena rock isn’t seamless; Years of Refusal does have its wonky auto-tune moments, its too-safe song structures. But it’s gratifying to see Moz finally take up the rock and roll mantle he’s been eyeing since his 00s comeback began — and for the most part, it works.