Is Morrissey content to ride off into the sunset, singing midtempo numbers with children's choirs?
Morrissey has always attempted to portray himself as the outsider's outsider. His career and his iconic status have affirmed that it's been an overwhelmingly successful endeavor. Especially in his native UK, the music press continues to crane its neck in his direction with regularity, like a jock keeping tabs on the misfit kid in the corner who always aces his science project. When he became rich and famous and moved to Southern California, Morrissey was accused of hypocrisy and criminal pretension. How could someone in that position possibly identify with people who didn’t fit in, much less maintain he was one of those people. But those accusations missed the point. Morrissey in LA is Morrissey in Manchester is Morrissey in Rome. Maybe the reason his outsider identity has endured is also the simplest and least impeachable one. It's genuine.
Like most outsiders, Morrissey is hyper-aware of what attention the world does pay to him. In other words, he's not above caring about things like chart positions and record sales. You Are the Quarry, his 2004 comeback, became his career-to-date bestseller. Many factors conspired to produce this success. A significant one was Jerry Finn's slick, glossy, adult-alternative-friendly production. Finn had made his name producing slick, glossy pop-punk albums for MxPx and Blink 182. He was instrumental in restoring Morrissey's commercial credibility at a time when Morrissey was in dire need of it. For the follow-up, 2006's Ringleader of the Tormentors, Morrissey tapped veteran Tony Visconti to produce, making good on a long-mooted partnership. The album received pretty good reviews and sold respectably, but was nowhere near the smash You Are the Quarry had been.
So, Morrissey didn't hesitate to turn back to Finn for Years of Refusal. Visconti's lush, spacious orchestrations are out, replaced by Finn's more radio-friendly sheen. But there's a difference this time. For someone who makes a point of being so emotionally sensitive, Morrissey is obsessed with classic, old-school masculine toughness. You don't have to look any further than the fixations on criminals, gangsters, and boxing that can be traced throughout his career. On Years of Refusal, this obsession plays out in the music as well as the picture sleeves and the lyrics.
Years of Refusal is Morrissey's leanest, meanest, loudest record since 1992's Your Arsenal. The adult-alternative bit is pretty much gone, replaced by a "lads-only night in the studio" vibe. Since Your Arsenal, Moz's band, rotating membership and all, have always looked like hoods. Here, they play like hoods, too, cranking up the volume and letting loose with explosive guitars, rattling bass, and earth-shattering drums. With Moz within a hair's breadth of 50, the unspoken premise is that age can be overcome with pure bombast. And on Years of Refusal's incredible opening salvo, the execution works better than it has any right to.
By now you might well have read about "Something is Squeezing My Skull". It packs a breathless, power-guitar riff, irresistible chorus, and thermal meltdown of an ending, in which Morrissey is urged on by guitarist Boz Boorer's shouts, into two minutes. And it's not short on Morrissey's sharp-as-ever wit, either. "I'm doing very well / I can block out the present and the past now", he claims, proceeding to rattle off a list of prescription drugs that help him do so. This is followed by the in-your-face rhythmic punch of "Mama Lay Softly on the Riverbed" and the devilish glam/rockabilly of "Black Cloud", which puts a twist on the reflexive bass riff from Your Arsenal track "Tomorrow" and features some mean and moody guitar from… Jeff Beck? Yes, Jeff Beck!
On paper, it might well sound horrible, an aging icon grasping for a mojo that just isn't there any more. Even when you first hear these tracks, you can't help but think of Morrissey fronting Social Distortion, and all the wrongness that implies. But then the evidence sinks in. The songs, mostly co-penned by mainstays Boorer and Alain Whyte, are mostly wicked good, the lyrics are intriguing enough, and vocally, Moz is up to the task. In fact, throughout Years of Refusal, he sounds younger than he has in at least a decade. With the band pushing him rather than simply covering his back, he sounds invigorated, stretching, twisting, and doing that wordless yodeling thing more convincingly than he has since his Smiths days.
Not all of Years of Refusal is bombast, either. The band show they can complement Morrissey's more contemplative material as well. Single "I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris" is a typical latter-day midtempo Morrissey number, elegant and unfussy, only it's buoyed by exemplary musical and vocal melodies. "You Were Good in Your Time", the only one of the dozen tracks here that stretches beyond a few minutes, is so languid, the synth-strings so glacial, it's very nearly trip-hop.
"It's Not Your Birthday Anymore" harnesses the best of both worlds, delicate, emotionally naked verses harshly interrupted by a pounding, anthemic chorus. While the title may suggest self-parody, Morrissey pulls it off, shattering the contrivance of a pleasant celebration with… real love? When he sings, "All the gifts that they gave can't compare in any way / to the love I am now giving to you / right here right now on the floor," it certainly sounds that way. Or is the reference to something that "cannot be given / so it must be taken" far darker? These questions make the track affecting rather than just a good tune. Morrissey seems to sense it, too, emoting wordlessly, sincerely, with unprecedented passion. As a bonus, even rockers like "Mother Lay Softly on the Riverbed" and "Black Cloud" have moments of unexpected beauty.
It's debatable whether any of Morrissey's preceding eight studio albums can rightly be considered a classic from start to finish. Alas, to ask that of Years of Refusal would be too much. The decision to include the two singles from 2008's Greatest Hits, especially the undistinguished "That's How People Grow Up", is questionable. "When Last I Spoke to Carol" takes a valiant stab at mariachi music, and misses. "Sorry Doesn't Help", which sounds like a mediocre bar band trying to do glam, is just horrible. And the question of whether Morrissey's lashing out at critics and doubters has become pathological still looms, as it has for the last decade.
No, Years of Refusal, though it contains several songs that could be among his best, is no classic. But it doesn't need to be. Morrissey has earned the right to sit back and become his generation's Sinatra, and most of his fans would be perfectly happy with that. Instead, with this record, he's had a go at holding his own with the young whippersnappers instead. And he's succeeded.