Morrissey's transformation into a singing Nigel Farage-Piers Morgan hybrid reaches its ultimate phase - quirky instrumentals and the occasional Smiths throwback moment can't save his album from the taint of bad politics
Morrissey is a difficult character to approach with objectivity. His work with The Smiths is essential listening, legendary for good reason. Though he has earned the ‘Pope of Mope’ moniker that once bogged down his image, Morrissey has proven in the intervening years to be capable of much more, musically and politically.
It must be addressed that the Morrissey of 2020 cuts a different kind of counter-cultural figure than he did with the Smiths in the 1980s or as a successful solo act. Previously set apart by his lack of pretension to rockstardom, his soft-spoken and articulate demeanour, and passion for animal welfare, Morrissey now grabs headlines for his hard-right proclamations and appeals to UKIP-lite ‘common sense’ xenophobia. His support for Anne Marie Waters’ repulsive For Britain party is just one example. Morrissey has always made political music – see ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’ from 1988’s Viva Hate – but he no longer punches up at a system that victimises people and mistreats animals. The politics of 2020 Morrissey is roundly that of punching down.
An extended discussion of this is justified as Morrissey, the master of his public perception, has leaned into his image as a ‘truth-teller’ and a marginalised exponent of Brexit Britain, post-truth fake news ‘facts’. Think Nigel Farage with a grey quiff. Traces of the old character remain, especially on tracks like ‘Love Is On Its Way Out’ (a song title so obviously Morrissey that it’s surprising he hasn’t used it before). ‘What Kind of People Live in These Houses’ is crying out for a Johnny Marr guitar line, and wouldn’t sound too out-of-place on a Smiths compilation. His evocations of societal collapse recall similar themes on older albums; like the man singing and arranging them, however, I Am Not a Dog on a Chain offers songs unlike that of previous albums. The electronic sound Morrissey maligned in his youth are used frequently here, namely on the opener ‘Jim Jim Falls’ with its compressed MIDI-like bassline, and the subtle techno-whirring that fills out the instrumental of the title track. “I see no point in being nice” he sings, the kind of on-the-nose comment that the Ricky Gervaises and Laurence Foxes of the present day loudly trumpet, oblivious to the irony of their own virtue signalling. It’s this persona that makes the track ‘The Truth About Ruth’, an ill-conceived song about gender fluidity that comes across as simply mean, almost impossible to sit through.
Whilst it would be critically unfair to dismiss the album purely because Morrissey wants to make eco-fascism mainstream, what can be fairly judged is the poor mixing. The instrumentals are mostly interesting and dense, but are dulled by excessive polishing and centring in the mix. Not even the Björk-esque electronic elements can properly stand out when the production is so muddy. Morrissey’s voice, however, still holds up, albeit in the baritone range he sticks to these days. Though he can’t quite give credibility to plainly bad tracks like ‘Darling, I Hug a Pillow’ or ‘Once I Saw the River Clean’, even the weak points of the album are far more experimental than a late-career solo album by a 1980s frontman has any right to be. I’m reminded of the slightly torturous Paul McCartney effort Egypt Station from last year, how it stuck rigidly to formula with disappointing results. No such thing here from a British musical icon of similar stature in Morrissey, who devotes 7:52 of his fifty-minute album to increasingly tedious music puns over a glitch-pop instrumental (‘The Secret of Music’). Again, we are forced to ask if it’s better to have tried something ambitious and failed than succeeded with the routine.
Common wisdom holds that with age comes tendency to right-of-centre politics. Morrissey has, in the last few years, become an extreme case. Once the darling of the Manchester working class and a vicious opponent of neoliberal Thatcherism, his introversion and understandable pride in his background has allowed him to be swept up by the same political currents affecting many of his generation. Nonetheless, I Am Not a Dog on a Chain is a far-cry from projects typically released by former members of seminal British bands. Though Morrissey has ceded all of his likability, his lyricism, commitment to experimentation, and his idiosyncratic style remain mostly untouched. If you can separate the man from the music – and I’m unsure if I can – there is an intriguingly weird album here.
Morrissey’s I Am Not a Dog on a Chain is out now via BMG.