Sunday, 1 March 2009

Years of Refusal

Morrissey - Years of Refusal
released 16 February 2009 on Decca/Polydor

Everyone knows something about Morrissey. People who couldn’t name a single song by The Smiths even if you pointed a gun at their head know who he is. Despite his repeated proclamations that fame doesn’t interest him and he just wants to be left alone, Morrissey knows how to play the game better than probably anybody in music except Madonna. He has always courted controversy and has been a fixture of the music press for nearly three decades. It has been said that in the early years of his solo career, issues of the NME which featured Morrissey interviews would outsell Morrissey albums.

As such, it’s impossible to not have any preconceptions about Years of Refusal. Regardless of the content, there will be legions of die-hards who will buy and cherish it and people who wouldn’t listen to it if they were paid. In effect, Morrissey has been so good at creating and maintaining an image that it’s almost a hindrance when it comes to getting people to listen to his music.

Happily, Years of Refusal is more or less a triumph. It’s difficult to think of any other artist who is approaching 50 and is producing something so fresh and relevant whilst still doing what they do best and have been doing throughout their career.

It’s a Morrissey record, so you’re initially going to be listening out for the lyrics rather than the music. However, to do that would be to do the band a disservice, as they demonstrate that their arrangements are much more than just a vehicle for Morrissey’s trademark wit and wisdom. Whether it be the powerful marching drums that drive Mama Lay Softly on the Riverbed or the flamenco guitars and horn flourishes that adorn When I Last Spoke to Carol, the band are cohesive and more than deserve equal billing with the man himself.

As far as the lyrics go, there are signs that Morrissey is possibly mellowing with age. Songs are titled Sorry Doesn’t Help and Black Cloud rather than Some Girls are Bigger than Others or Girlfriend in a Coma. In fact, there appears to be nothing as deliberately attention-grabbing and obtuse as even the assertion that “you have never been in love until you’ve seen the sun rise over the home for the blind” from You Are the Quarry’s First of the Gang to Die. Some songs here could even be described as practically conventional in their lyrical style. That’s not to say there isn’t the odd suggestive and fruity couplet that will raise a wry smile; take It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore where Morrissey croons “All the gifts that I gave can’t compare in any way / To the love I am now giving to you, right here, right now… on the floor.”

And croon Morrissey certainly does. Another feature of his ever-mellowing outlook is that he has fully grown into his voice and it suits him like never before. He has become a proper chanteur and is aging with a stylish élan.

Of the twelve tracks on show, the first eight are endlessly listenable and demonstrate the fact that when on form, Morrissey sure knows how to write a tune. In fact, it’s not too high praise to suggest that current single, I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris, is amongst his best work, Smiths-era inclusive.

But just as it seems that Years of Refusal is destined to become a classic, Morrissey’s inspiration runs dry. You Were Good in Your Time is a mawkish ballad that strays dangerously close to Lloyd-Webber-esque show-tune material and will have you skipping back to the high-energy and bombast of the fantastic first track, Something is Squeezing My Skull. The final two songs are lacklustre Morrissey-by-numbers efforts, with album closer I’m OK By Myself the worse offender. It appears to have been written by not-particularly-funny pop satirists and sounds like what people who don’t like Morrissey songs think Morrissey songs are like. It’s miserable, it’s whiny, it’s self-absorbed and it displays the kind of attitude that would be more suited to a surly teenager.

Herein lies the frustrating paradox that is Morrissey. For most of the record he appears to be content to make music, but he can’t resist the occasional blatantly attention-grabbing stunt which appears completely at odds with his supposed dislike of fame. It’s almost as if he’s resigned to his press caricature at times and it’s none more apparent on the opening lines of All You Need is Me: “You hiss and groan and you constantly moan but you don’t ever go away / And that’s because all you need is me.”

Years of Refusal proves that - to borrow a lazy cliché - you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. However, it demonstrates that, given time, the dog can learn how to make the best of those tricks. This album is at its best when it’s idiosyncratic, unique, vintage Morrissey. Yet it’s Morrissey’s other, less appealing idiosyncrasies that are his undoing and until he learns to rein them in and just do what he does best, he’s forever destined by be judged by his image instead of his music.

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