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Morrissey - Years of Refusal

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Artist: Morrissey

Album: Years of Refusal

Label: Lost Highway

Review date: Feb. 17, 2009

By this point in the long arc of his career, indie-pop icon Morrissey has played quite a few disparate roles for music fans and media alike. He has been the consummate fan-boy, his mythical mid-’70s obsession with proto-punk/glam acts like the New York Dolls and Sparks acting as a blueprint for how his fans, a few years later, would fixate on his every foppish flourish. He has defined the idea of the pop-star-who-is-not-a-pop-star; his wistful romanticism, pervasive loneliness, and fey flailing take on misery making him an artist who spoke directly into the bedrooms of his listeners like few ever have. He made a slew of pop hits that became cult classics, and an even greater repository of cult classics that all should have been pop hits.

On the other hand, he has been the embattled solo artist, a punching bag for the U.K. music press for his romantic fascination with sweet and tender skinhead hooliganism and Union Jack-sporting fashion. He has been an artist dropped from his label for poor sales (shortly after the release of Maladjusted), an underdog the kind of which he celebrated in his songs; losing in front of his home crowd, but nonetheless worshipped unconditionally by a worldwide cadre of fans.

This decades-long oscilloscope of ups and down was largely forgotten with the release of 2004’s You are the Quarry. Whether it was because of a resurgence of interest in artists who first achieved popularity in the early ’80s or a critical absorption of the slow-burning buzz generated by an artist with a rabid fanbase who was releasing his first album in seven years, the release of YATQ was a gigantic indie-cum-mainstream event. Morrissey was finally the darling of the music press, and it was impossible to find a less-than-favorable review of the latest album.

In the fullness of time, though, YATQ was one of Moz’s weaker efforts. The hit single “Irish Blood, English Heart” offered one of his career’s least passionate deliveries and some of its least compelling melodies. “The First of the Gang to Die” was a fast song played at a crawl. The best tracks on the album were the ones that received the least attention, “The World is Full of Crashing Bores” and “I’m Not Sorry,” two tracks that could have been Maladjusted b-sides. It was great to have Morrissey finally releasing new songs again, after fantastic tours that nonetheless offered little more than “Greatest Hits” setlists (not to mention about 10 reissued, repackaged CDs of the same variety), but the critical praise seemed more akin to groupthink than honest appraisal. It was nice to see Mozzer finally back on top, but vaguely upsetting to be carried along in a tide of buzz.

Two albums later, Years of Refusal will do nothing to stem the stream of accolades Morrissey missed out on during some of his most productive years, the ones between the critically acclaimed shift in sound that was Vauxhall and I and the to-this-day critically reviled, criminally underrated Maladjusted. It’s a formidable return to his more familiar post-’04 pop form, a better album by any assessment than YATQ.

A furious performance by Boz Boorer and the boys underpins some of Morrissey’s more exciting vocal acrobatics on opener “Something is Squeezing My Skull,” from he track’s titular line to its breathless outro. Moz’s meditation on the pharmacopeia of the early-oughts might threaten the songs timeless potential, and its listing of prescriptions (diazepam/that’s valium, etc) might skew towards bathos, for better or for worse, Moz understands depression as well as he ever has, living through its current mindbending iteration.

The album continues on to cover the full range of Morrisseyian emotion. ”All You Need is Me” provides the “dose-of-romance-packed-in-wry-venom.” “You Were Good In Your Time” finds Morrissey again giving a debatably self-effacing ode to an artist past his prime, in a particularly syrupy retread of the territory explored on both the emphatic pub-rock of “Get Off The Stage” and “Little Man, What Now,” Viva Hate’s obsession with slipping off the radar. “Throwing My Arms Around Paris” doesn’t spend too much time on each verse before throwing itself into a superlative chorus. This track, replete with that sweeping, tearjerking melancholy, brings to mind all of Moz’s hyperventilation, stage-crashing, and limitless potential for cleverness. (How many homemade “Hello My Name Is: Paris” nametags can we expect this coming tour?) “Only stone and steel accept my love,” croons Morrissey, illustrating perfectly his career-long draw and his career-long paradox: There are arenas full of people out there who understand exactly how lonely Morrissey feels, and those arenas may be more packed now than any time in a few decades.

In 2004, we didn’t just enter a new age of Morrissey, we entered an age of late-to-the-game journalists writing fawning articles about “mope-rock” revivalism. We saw the term “indie,” like “goth” and “emo” before it, get picked up by mainstream publications and generalized to the point of utter meaninglessness. We could no longer be quite so certain that the person standing next to us at a Belle and Sebastian show wasn’t a frat boy. Due to whatever nexus of social and technological forces brought that about, Morrissey isn’t sure to be loved only by fanatics. He’s a songwriter who, as far as the press is concerned, can do no wrong – and so it’s worth mentioning that he wrote some of his best material when he could do no right.

It’s hard to argue with the public reverence towards the latest incarnation of Morrissey, or begrudge the long suffering idiosyncratic pop-icon the continued accolades of an industry that spent a solid few decades flipping him off. But it’s important that new audiences experience those underappreciated gems off of World of Morrissey, Southpaw Grammar and Maladjusted, not to mention the host of b-sides that had obsessive fans digging back through his Smiths days. Throughout the years before the quarry received its most recent expansion, Morrissey was writing songs as an actual industry outsider. The urgency that fed Morrissey fan-dom is a hard thing for any man to continue, no matter how much torment or refusal may still be involved.

By Matthew A. Stern

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