It is time to face the facts: singer-songwriter Morrissey is no longer the charming frontman he was in The Smiths. God bless him, he tried. But Morrissey is in the third act of his career, and like the second act, nothing will ever live up to the first.
On his 11th studio album, “Low in High School,” released on Nov. 17, there is a lot to enjoy, and a lot of things to utterly facepalm at. The album reunites Morrissey with his producer, Joe Chiccarelli, whom he worked with on the album “World Peace Is None Of Your Business.” Similar to that work, this one explores a variety of different tempos, melodies and aesthetics.
The album opens with the very orchestral, horn-heavy, guitar-driven “My Love, I’d Do Anything For You.” The echoey edges of Morrissey’s vocals lend a very strong, powerful chill right into the ear drums. The song sounds like you’re listening to the climax of a Hollywood epic.
We are then led into the second track on the album, “I Wish You Lonely.” If Tim Burton were to make a dance flick à la Saturday Night Fever, then this would have been the song the main character rhythmically walked to in the opening scene. While it does not quite have the epic scope of the first song, it’s still a worthy cut with its eerie-sounding synth arrangement with lingering acoustic riff.
These two songs are some of the more interesting tracks on the album, and some of the most appealing solo work he’s done in general.
However, the third track, “Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on the Stage,” is unambitious. The polished guitar melody paired with synthetic-sounding drums and a drowsy vocal performance make for a boring song.
From this point on, the album becomes a bit of a rollercoaster, albeit, a fairly exciting one with tracks like “All the Young People Must Fall In Love.” It sounds almost as if The Smiths did a stripped down gospel instrumental with clapping, keyboards and drums.
The song is fun and bouncy, like the background to a family reunion picnic, but it is also accompanied by the pure emo spirit that Morrissey emits from his pores.
Contrarily, “In Your Lap” goes back to familiar territory, with a simple piano riff, a spacey, atmospheric backdrop and Morrissey doing a talk-singing shtick. Driven by instrumentals with little singing, there isn’t much to work with, making it nothing to write home about.
Oddly enough, Morrissey heads into salsa territory with the song “The Girl From Tel-Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel.” The sound is whitewashed and lacking overall. Morrissey drones on about a dictator, a rebellious peasant and the tyranny that the land endures. Why wasn’t this one of the more larger-than-life tracks? Why was this some whitewashed salsa cut? It’s a baffling decision on Morrissey’s part.
With “I Bury the Living,” he goes on an anti-troop tirade. He sings, “Give me an order / I’ll blow up a border / Give me an order / I’ll blow up your daughter.”
This song sets up a political tone that is seen in other parts of the album. In the final song, “Israel,” which throws support to its namesake, he sings, “I can’t answer for what armies do / They are not you / They are not you / They are not you / In other climes they b—- and whine / Just because you’re not like them / Israel, Israel.”
Both songs are very complexly instrumented, almost cinematic sounding tracks, and Morrissey’s delivery and flexibility with pacing helps exemplify that.
Then there’s “Spent The Day In Bed,” which gives Morrissey this electric keyboard-driven beat with a particularly anti-media message. He sings, “The news contrives to frighten you / To make you feel small and alone / To make your mind isn’t your own.” But the thing is, they’re so straightforward and obvious, that it doesn’t have the right effect. There’s simply no subtlety. It just seems like Morrissey is trying to cash in on the situations at hand, as opposed to having some sincere support and understanding of them.
The best thing that can be said about this album is the scope: it’s big. It sounds as if you’re listening to a symphony of musicians recording live in a booth. While it can be a bit too touched up, the overproduction usually does not get too distracting. Certainly, it never gets to the airbrushed levels of something like, say, “California” by blink-182, or Weezer’s “Pacific Daydream.”
On “Low in High School,” Morrissey takes his voice into territories not seen in decades. He cries out the verses in a fit of passion. His low yet flowing voice lends this icy, powerful sting to these large, ambitious instrumentals, and they really strike you as you’re listening to them. Even with the vocals, which aren’t always perfect, there is some real artistry.