Viva Morrissey

By Aaron Mendelson

Twenty-two years into his career, it seems that Morrissey has chosen his new album, “Ringleader of the Tormentors” to let the love that dares not speak its name out of the closet and renounce his celibacy for good. References to “powder kegs between my legs” and key as phallic metaphors abound; another lyric is perhaps best left out of print. Morrissey, with his singularly operatic voice, sings with an effete passion uncommon to rockstars of any age, and certainly not his advanced one (mark your calendars: his 50th is fast approaching).

Maybe it’s the subject matter. The two coming-out songs, “Dear God, Please Help Me” and “You Have Killed Me” are two of the album’s best, and Morrissey’s revelation has hardly cheered him up (witness the seven-minute “Life Is a Pigsty”). “Dear God” which starts out with a somber organ part but ends a bit more grandiosely, is as affecting as anything the man has ever sung (the song’s string arrangements are courtesy of legendary film composer Ennio Morricone). “You Have Killed Me” turns the amps up higher than The Smiths ever did for a superb rocker reminiscent of (and that makes oblique reference to) Morrissey’s 2004 comeback “You Are The Quarry.” That album kicked off a Renaissance that Ringleader continues.

The album isn’t uniformly strong: “The Father Who Must Be Killed” is uninspired musically and lyrically. Ditto for “At Last I Am Born”. But, for the most part, the songwriting, production (courtesy of former T. Rex producer Tony Visconti), and lyrics are near-excellent, though detractors will point out they don’t stray far from the self-pitying guitar rock Morrissey has made a living off. The signature, airy guitar of Morrissey’s songwriting partner in The Smiths, Johnny Marr, is, as always, missed—no other guitar could replace that sound—but twists like a children’s choir on “The Youngest Was the Most Loved” keep the sound interesting, if not exactly fresh. The only real departure on the album is its opener “I Will See You In Far Off Places”, which marries thundering bass to a wall of vaguely Middle Eastern-sounding reverb for one of the best Bush-bashing songs since You Are The Quarry’s “America Is Not The World.”

Which is not to suggest that Ringleader ranks with the very finest work of The Smiths or Morrissey’s solo career. Not quite. Songs like “Dear God, Please Forgive Me” and “You Have Killed Me” are imbued with a passion every bit as overwhelming as the finest on “The Queen is Dead” or “Viva Hate”—these albums have moments of utter catharsis. Ringleader of the Tormentors doesn’t so consistently accomplish this feat—Johnny Marr’s guitar is absent, the lyrics are occasionally clumsy, and the second half of the album lacks a true knockout. But Morrissey’s bold step out of the closet isn’t for naught: it has inspired a pair of brilliant tunes, and the album is frontloaded with semi-classics. As long as the Moz continues to make albums, as he has done with “Ringleader,” bursting at the seams with emotion, wit, and sympathy, he’ll remain relevant until he reaches the cemetery gates he first sang about two decades ago. Until then, Morrissey’s inability to make peace with himself will help the rest of us find a little of our own.

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