Morrissey: “Years of Refusal”
From the very start of his career with The Smiths, Morrissey displayed an almost impossible blend of flamboyance and mystery, exhibiting a big, charismatic personality and writing deeply, sometimes even discomfortingly direct, confessional lyrics, all the while managing to reveal very little about who he really is. It’s no wonder, then, that copious amounts of critical ink have been spilled in an effort to unearth the real Morrissey. What can be a bit distressing, though, is that so much of that critical ink has been devoted almost exclusively to analyzing Moz’ lyrics and attempting to psychoanalyze the man himself, generally at the expense of any real, substantive discussion of his music.
But then, with a personality as provocative and lyrics as rich with humor and drama as Morrissey’s, one can’t blame critics for focusing on the words, and the man, more than the actual music– particularly since, frankly, the music is often not all that interesting. When he was with The Smiths, Moz had the nimble, layered guitar work of Johnny Marr to lighten the weight of his overly dramatic lyrics; in lesser hands, Moz’ songs would have toppled under the weight of their own pretension, but, with Marr and the rest of The Smiths, Morrissey managed to concoct some of the wittiest, catchiest, and most fully realized singles of the 1980s. On his own, though… well, that’s another story. Morrissey’s solo career is either very consistent or very predictable– depending on whether you’re a fan or a detractor– and has pretty much traded in the same guitar-heavy British pop tropes ever since The Smiths disbanded. Thus, there’s not a great deal of variety from one Morrissey album to the next– simply varying degrees to which his music sustains his lofty lyrics or is trapped beneath the man’s own ambitions.
So while his late-career records have all been fairly well-received, their workmanlike dependability haven’t prevented the Morrissey brand from slowly turning into self-parody, as the singer’s drama-queen tendencies and layers of social criticism and personal angst have gone from being witty and dramatic to a bit overwrought. Years of Refusal— his first album for the Lost Highway imprint– comes at a point when one more by-the-numbers Morrissey album might turn the man into nothing but a caricature; thankfully, though, the album comes as a minor surprise in a career that’s had too few of them. Though not a stylistic departure or a thematic change of pace in the least, the album does have the distinct advantage of being Moz’ lightest, most muscular and performance-based record in ages, helping it to enliven the Morrissey formula, if not exactly revamp it.
Indeed, several albums into his “comeback,” Morrissey sounds as though he’s finally reconnecting with what inspired him in the first place; Years of Refusal sounds like the work of a man remembering just how much he loves making music, as it’s seemingly crafted with live performances in mind. The album skews heavily toward upbeat, energetic rockers, and though they’re enhanced by some strings, the arrangements are surprisingly tight and no-frills, with producer Jerry Finn (who also helmed 2004’s You are the Quarry) keeping the focus on the lively, spirited performances of the band. It sounds as if the songs were made in order to provide rich fodder for the next Morrissey tour, and, if the performances here are any indication, they should fit the bill exceedingly well. Morrissey hasn’t sounded this hungry, this savagely energetic and invested in his music, since Your Arsenal; album opener “Something is Squeezing My Skull” is a jolt of pure electricity, rushing by in under three minutes with punkish abandon and a stronger, more spirited vocal performance than any Moz has given in a long time. The pace rarely sags for the duration of the album, and the singer and his band tear into these songs with equal parts pummeling force and light, graceful energy.
Part of what makes them work so well is that Morrissey had cut out the fat from his songs, keeping them relatively straightforward without sacrificing their humor or wit. Yes, he still writes lyrics filled with melodramatic statements of sexual frustration and self-loathing, mixed with barbs at modern life and social mores, but where previous albums have tended toward the sluggish and the overwritten, here Morrissey spits his words out in a quick, concise rush of one-liners that alternate between devlish nastiness and winking self-deprecation. In their tight construction and their leanness, the songs actually sound closer to prime Smiths work than to so-so Morrisey solo, and they allow the singer to turn in one of his very strongest, most ruthlessly efficient sets ever, with half the songs coming in at under 3 minutes and no ballads in sight until the final third, when the wickedly mean “It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore” ushers in the record’s final, slightly slower but equally well-crafted final act.
That Morrissey titles one of his songs “You Were Good in Your Time” might have sounded like a fitting epitaph on some of his lesser recent albums, but here, it bristles with irony; an album as lively and hungry as this one gives one ample reason to believe that this has-been has plenty of years left in him yet– indeed, it almost makes one hope that his true comeback is only now beginning. It isn’t exactly an adventurous or a surprising Morrissey album, of course, but anyone hoping for something like that from ol’ dependable Moz is, at this point, being a bit naive. What it is is a very fine, compelling Morrissey album that stands alongside his finest works yet, and reminds us that, as stale as his work can sometimes become, there are riches yet to be unearthed in his singular, sometimes still thrilling craft.