Manchester’s finest crooner returns with his first album in 3 years- expanding the bitter acrimony and wit that’s characterized his work since The Smiths first released Hand In Glove to a veritable who’s who of establishment figures to great effect.
It should come as no surprise to those familiar with Misery Morrissey that his latest work is particularly politically charged, especially in the context of the past eighteen months. Indeed, to maintain the equilibrium between “young and liberal” and “Morrissey fan” has become increasingly tiring as time has marched on. From his lauding of the arch-nemesis of youth, Nigel Farage to frequent quasi-racist ramblings, Morrissey has become every bit the middle-aged reactionary poet one could never have imagined upon first hearing ‘The Boy with the Thorn in his Side’. Yet, the drug that is Morrissey is one most of us can’t quite kick; the record always spins again, the words “Last night I dreamt that somebody loved me” echo, and we fall to our knees – what Judas could dream of leaving such a man?
It is with mixed feelings then, that I first ventured the landscape of verse and chorus that makes up Low In High School. To be candid – the album holds well. Morrissey’s latest release doesn’t begin to enter the race that The Queen Is Dead or Your Arsenal run, yet you can’t help but find yourself enthralled at points. One thing that’s always been true of our kitchen sink protagonist of course: he’s always been enthralling.
The stinging lyrics that have been a mainstay of Morrissey’s work return in full force, attacking all sides. Whilst stumbling into a clumsy avenue every so often – our beloved Moz has by no means perfected the art of writing about sex, for instance, a tool he uses with all the blunt force of a hammer to the head – his rap sheet against the guilty provides some of the high points of the album. On lead single ‘Spent the Day in Bed’, the cry of “Stop watching the news/for the news contrives to frighten you” is a triumphant stand against the plethora of fake news and call to arms against the media; whilst ‘All the Young People Must Fall in Love’ opens with the muted “Spend more on nuclear war if that is your chosen illusion”: a softer, yet defiant war cry against the elite who will fall away to dust, in a song that’s evocative of Lennon’s ‘Give Peace a Chance’- by no means ever a bad thing.
Behind the powerful words is a powerful voice. Morrissey’s lungs produce some of the best performances of a thirty-year career, with entries such as ‘Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on the Stage’ and ‘I Wish You Lonely’ being particularly exultant in their delivery. No longer, it seems, is Morrissey chained to the sultry, monotonous warbling that first convinced a million of society’s cast-offs to fall in love with him; instead, building on the foundations laid by 2009’s Years of Refusal, with a deep, resilient voice that powers through the more challenging notes he may set himself.
Whilst it would give me tremendous pleasure to end the review here and simply hand Morrissey 5 stars like a cheque to a lottery winner, this is an album with ugly faults that force themselves on the ears. Perhaps the major issue surrounding Low In High School is that it simply falls under its own ambition. Instrumentally, a flood of different noises attacks through the earphones – combining the traditional guitar-bass-drum set with strings, brass, and synthetics, as well as non-diegetic whaling in some cases. The worst offender is ‘I Bury The Living’- a self-indulgent track with lyrically questionable motives – its 7-minute length is relentless in throwing every possible note and misnote at the listener and ultimately trips over its own bravado as it walks to the throne. The album’s best moments are its simplest: ‘All the Young People Must Fall in Love’ and ‘The Girl from Tel-Aviv who wouldn’t Kneel’ provide two of the cleanest and best tracks to be found – using far fewer instruments, and thus having the opportunity to experiment with sound, not just throwing it like a pie to the face.
With a tangible drop in enjoyment levels as the last three tracks fade in and out, Morrissey does leave the listener with plenty to reflect on. It’s true that his instrumental organization is stacked like the most precarious of Jenga towers, and his lyrics do fall to the wayside every now and then; criticism could go further – with a smug self-congratulation tied to sorrowful self-pity being particularly trite. However, for all its flaws, Low in High School is a satisfying album with many pitfalls, rather than a bad album with some inclines. Some of the avenues Morrissey does venture – even if they don’t all quite work here – do at least show promise for future releases.
So, whilst many of us may not agree with all that comes out of bigmouth when he inevitably strikes again, Morrissey remains a champion of the blue collar in the most unique way, opposing the untouchables of the world. It may not be Strangeways Here We Come – but Low in High School is essential listening for fans of Moz everywhere, and that cantankerous old kook almost certainly has something for all to enjoy as they wander through.
Low in High School is out now via BMG