Back in the summer I somewhat presumptuously announced my Album of the Year just that little bit early. How to paint oneself into a corner – as Syd Barrett apocryphally did whilst adding stripes to the floorboards during The Madcap Laughs photo-shoot.
And now that the evenings fall darker… well, I’m hardly going to reveal a volte face. I will however suggest that it’s important to acknowledge the journey through caricature when discussing the Morrissey persona – the vaudeville grande dame, waspish asides in one paw, sick note in the other – and how such an appraisal (as unremitting and as tedious as it has become) is ferociously disingenuous in terms of new material. That whilst the small group of hardcore Moz acolytes uncritically hoover up every b-side and bon mot, the rest of us have perceptions chiselled whenever our homecoming queen deigns to release an LP… because, well, it’s Morrissey, isn’t it? A modern day Norma Desmond, so barricaded within auspices of status that the inevitable record label fall-out, the health rumours and withering put-down du jour generate far greater attention than any record bearing his name.
Between 2004 and 2009, the artist released three studio albums that weren’t very good. Or rather, he released three LPs that weren’t very good in a purely Morrissey context – there’ll be many who’ll disagree (the comments section down below is open for business), but the suspicion of dwindling returns wafted about rather freely back then, lending credence to the view that here was just another celebrity. A highly unorthodox celebrity, perhaps – we’re not exactly talking flicking on the Christmas illuminations, here – but still a construct pinioned to past glory, the contemporary relevance doctored by chat-show sofas and baubles thrown at (or just near) the press, ready to be taken out of context.
Call it the Kenneth Williams factor. Artistic integrity subsumed by cult of personality; the unbearable lightness of being Moz. Which isn’t fundamentally a problem – at least until the very instant a record as robust and resilient as World Peace Is None Of Your Business appears, and all the background chatter threatens to circumvent its impact…
Because World Peace… is a magnificent record, the sheer musicality of which a dreadnought, clearing the sea-lanes of enemy traffic. Band as defiantly strident, not only rigorous but erudite with it, franking each vocal with multi-faceted bite. Below I’ll reprint this summer’s review; my opinions haven’t altered by much (although I probably didn’t spend enough words on ‘Staircase At The University’; the double hand-claps alone worth price of admission). The hullabaloo accompanying release– tiresome at the best of times – serves as nothing but distraction, a state of affairs Morrissey’s complicity can’t be excused (“Fuck Harvest” indeed). And yet on a one-to-one basis – listener and glass of wine on one side, World Peace… on the other – this is not only an album whose significance should never be underplayed, but something far greater, too. “Statuesque” may be the applicable adjective. “Required” very much another. From early August…
Recorded thirty years after the release of The Smiths’ début. Twenty after Vauxhall And I – the acme of Morrissey fanaticism. A decade after You Are The Quarry; a dog of an album that doesn’t bear scrutiny. I’ll be kind here, and admit to low expectations; for quite a few years Steven Patrick has been subsiding into some pre-ordained, convalescent home diva-hood. A light-entertainment Morrissey, re-living the same battles but with a little less oomph and brio up his sleeves (I’m a devotee, with his words permanently imprinted up and along my arm; I’m allowed to have a mealy mouth). He still has it live (as long as he doesn’t cancel the tour); the Debbie Reynolds of disenfranchised pop. Yet of the studio material of the last ten years, Ringleader Of The Tormentors is only fascinating in a certain light. Years Of Refusal… far less so (Swords – his b-side compilation covering ’04 to ’09 – is a far more coherent proposition).
The point being is that Word Peace… shouldn’t be what it is. Word Peace… should be an adjunct. A companion piece. That “It’s nice to see the lead singer of The Smurfs still going” comment thrown about by dad during Sunday lunch. Pass us the potatoes, you fucker. No, not the broccoli; the potatoes. Artists well into their fifties do not release game changers. Perhaps in other disciplines – the warm arts, as Chris Morris would have called it – but not new vinyl. Middle age (at least as advertised) brings with it nuance, contemplation, sharper understanding – a vista of musical contexts very different from kicking against the pricks. And World Peace…doesn’t kick against the pricks; instead it takes them behind the woodshed to administer the soundest of thrashings.
Put simply, this is a beast of a record. It struts, preens, has confidence dripping from each pore with gleeful abandon. A butch musicality that doesn’t skimp on any grace of movement; it’s lithe, supple, immediate, and very, very necessary. Never has the band – Boz, Jesse and the boys – sounded so tight, this vibrant. Opener (and lead single) ‘World Peace Is None Of Your Business’ kicks off with a thirty second didgeridoo fugue. ‘Neal Cassady Drops Dead’ is built around a dirty guitar riff and breeze block percussion – a pugilistic, bruising sound. And the epic ‘I’m Not A Man’ leads with over a minute’s worth of obtuse ambient soundscape before morphing into a buff yet strangely delicate slice of socio-political hectoring (well, this is a Morrissey record) in which each element (buzz-saw guitar, glam-rock drums, the vocal urgency) are revealed one at a time; the grand dénouement.
Morrissey records always invite comparison with what came before – such is the evocative nature of so much of the back catalogue. It’s to do with timbre; each track’s gait, the swagger, that fuzzy adjective defining the devotion (is there a word meaning Morrissey-like? Morrithetic? Mozesque?). World Peace Is None Of Your Business succeeds not only because its slots neatly into canon (it’s every bit as grandiloquent as Kill Uncle or Your Arsenal, for instance), but by subtly pointing the lyrical emphasis towards the staccato, songs such as ‘Smiler With Knife’ (“Sinking bed all warm and clean / Only sadness waits for me / Smiler with knife, you’re just in time”) and ‘Kiss Me A Lot’ (“Bastille, mausoleum / Stick-yard, church-yard”) carry an opaque quality that’s most pleasing – after all, the listener should always be doing some of the work. The lyrics are as arch and needle-sharp as only Morrissey’s could be (“I was sent here by a three-foot halfwit in a wig”), yet there’s an added layer of frisson about this, echoed in the banshee wail (with harp) climax to ‘Kick The Bride Down The Aisle’.
So; a powerful record. Cute with its muscularity. As wry as wry can be. And then there’s ‘Mountjoy’. You know that moment when but a simple listen becomes something so much more? Song as enfolding construct, coiling itself tightly around perception, never letting go? Well, that. Stripped percussion, no bass, no chorus. Momentum crafted by acoustic guitar, the electric present to provide the shards, the odd angles. There are parallels with the mighty ‘The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils’ here, but where-as that leaves Southpaw Grammar feeling unbalanced (it’s too pneumatic for its own good), the sensibilities of ‘Mountjoy’ underpin the entire album. It pummels with its starkness. Its sculpted edges. The manner by which, four minutes in exactly, the mournful cello adds just the right shade of emphasis. A lament of sorts (“A swagger hides the fear in here / By this rule we breathe”), perfectly lit; when Morrissey sings “The only thing that makes me cry is when I see the sky,” it’s delivered with impunity.
This is Morrissey’s tenth studio album; the element that’s so vital about it (perfectly exemplified by ‘Mountjoy’) is its sense of gravity. It works on all the senses (except maybe taste – but even then I’m not sure); the playful poke of ‘The Bullfighter Dies’. The coy, pop narrative (and lovely lazy trumpet) running through ‘Staircase At The University’. An equilibrium that we haven’t seen for quite a while – the biggest surprise being that we suddenly see it now. His finest album since Vauxhall And I – and considering how much I adore Vauxhall, that’s very high praise indeed.