There’s a great article from the Daily Mash where they debunk the theory that Morrissey was ever in The Smiths. How could someone who espoused the ideals of that great band possibly behave the way he does today without irony? This is a man who once sang “It takes guts to be gentle and kind” but now calls the Chinese a “sub-species” and backs Islamophobic UKIP leadership candidates. Low in High School shows his behaviour is not the only incongruity, because for the most part these songs show no indication of the lyrical genius that charmed and inspired a generation. But there are also moments of the old brilliance which show that his talent is still there – it’s just that often he is too preoccupied with getting his political message across to apply it.
While Morrissey has always felt persecuted, at least he used to seem faintly amused by his ordeals. He made feeling ostracised and alone hilarious and noble through sheer melodrama, and that endeared him to millions who also found themselves on the undesirable side of society. Petrified of death and of loneliness, he channelled his searing melancholy into writing some of the most imaginative and idiosyncratic songs ever sung. But there’s no humour to his lyrics anymore, there’s no wit. All traces of his vulnerability, his self-doubt, his “Oh well, enough said” lamentations have gone – he now seethes with anger, is smug, self-righteous, glibly ironic. While Morrissey used to be happy for his suffering to be the punchline, it now seems that joke isn’t funny anymore. He’s bitter. Inflated by gratuitous self-belief, there is now Morrissey’s way to be, and the wrong way to be – nothing in between.
On Low in High School, his song-writing is a vehicle for disseminating his opinions, rather than creating art. It’s as if he’s the biggest sycophant in his own cult of personality, and thinks people will find great joy in simply hearing his opinions. There is little use of imagery nor imagination in his lyrics, nary a simile nor metaphor. His world-view is completely black-and-white: soldiers are evil, those who have died for their country are fools, the police are dangerous, the news is misleading, revolutions are good for the people, the wars in the Middle East are just about oil, Israel’s critics are just jealous. He bluntly asserts these points of view without offering anything in terms of persuasion, or explanation as to why reality is not in fact a bit more complex than he makes out. The vast majority of the album consists of Morrissey repeating these viewpoints in a way that suggests you should be very impressed by them.
His band are capable, but they seem obsequious. They are well aware that they are the background and Morrissey is the foreground. They rarely try to do anything more than provide an hospitable environment for his vocals that isn’t too dull. Engaging riffs, exciting contrasts, virtually anything captivating – no. They play like the house band for a decent musical, able to dynamically change to suit the tone but never lead it anywhere. They provide some nice Middle Eastern ornamentations to tracks like “The Girl from Tel Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel”, and “When You Open Your Legs”, and there’s enough variation in the instrumentation across the album to at least keep it interesting. Their experience and quality as musicians also ensures the songs are at least never boring nor structurally weak, and it’s also worth noting that the production is excellently crisp. But their subordinate role encourages complacency within Morrissey – he’s not having to vie for the spotlight with Johnny Marr so why try hard at all? Despite all the room to flourish afforded to him, he makes little effort with his vocal melodies or lyrics. He keeps his singing in the low gears, his lines obvious. When both the band and Morrissey awake from this bland stupor at the end of “I Bury the Living”, it’s noticeable that it creates probably the best passage on the album – Morrissey adopts a surprisingly good falsetto and wraps an ambitious vocal melody around some trembling guitar figures. It’s just a pity the rest of the song is probably the worst offender for the litany of alienating practices that plague Morrissey’s lyrics on the album.
But while those practices are the rule here, there are exceptions, and at least two genuinely good songs. ‘Home Is a Question Mark’ is classic old school Morrissey, and all the better for it. The band cast a beguiling melancholy atmosphere, before Morrissey recapitulates his ongoing quest for a soul mate, unsatisfied that his success has brought him fame and fortune but not love: “I have the land but nothing more, because I haven’t met you”. “Home is some place I dunno”, he mourns in the chorus, and this is surely a reference back to ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, his great song about longing, death, and unrequited love. It’s genuinely moving to hear that Morrissey is still looking for someone to show him where he truly belongs after all these years. “Is it something you carry within you?” he wonders. The song drops down, before rising with an imperial flurry of strings, Morrissey asking grandly “If I get there, would you meet me? Wrap your legs around my face just to greet me?”. While that deeply unsexy reference to sex dampens the mood somewhat, sounding more like a reference to Alien, it’s just great to hear Morrissey being deeply emotional again. He even unleashes the full power of his voice at the end. He’s still got it.
‘All The Young People Must Fall in Love’ is another good track. The band’s boom-clap and deep brass create a protest anthem feel while Morrissey contrasts the catastrophes of global politics, particularly nuclear war, with the personal triumph of love: “The kids around here had the best idea/They say “Presidents come, Presidents go, but all the young people they must fall in love””. Like on ‘Home Is a Question Mark’, the better, more emotional lyrics seem to energise him vocally, and his melody is strong and characterised. Hopeful rather than spiteful, he’s even camply funny: “Presidents come, Presidents go, and ohhh…the damage they do”.
This theme is also a good feature of ‘In Your Lap’, where tenderness is dreamt of against a back-drop of civil war: “I heard a bang and an almighty crack…I just want my face in your lap”. There’s another reminder of Morrissey’s powers of old in the chorus of ‘When You Open Your Legs’ with its broad and yearning melody. But he repeats that wincingly bawdy reference to sex of the title, and again it spoils the mood. Clearly, Morrissey has not learned from receiving a Bad Sex Award for his novel List of the Lost, which among other crimes of expression referred to an erection as a “bulbous salutation”.
Though Morrissey’s lyrics are grating, at least he’s singing about something, which automatically makes this album more interesting than most. And it’s hard not to be touched by his passionate anti-war sentiment. That said, it is somewhat at odds with his unhedged support for Israel, which is referenced on three tracks, who even to the most sympathetic observer cannot be viewed as innocent of causing bloodshed. Morrissey simply sees the world the way he sees it, and is blind to the contradictions, and that can be infuriating. But what’s most infuriating is his indifference to expressing himself in stimulating ways – which is really the bedrock of art. At 58, Morrissey’s genius has faded, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of since it puts him in the company of Dylan, McCartney, Reed, Wonder, Jackson, etc. etc., but the question now is, can he haul himself into the bracket of Bowie and Cash and rediscover how to make great art once more? The absence of the characteristic features of his old writing is not lamentable because of nostalgia, but because they made Morrissey great – and on the occasions when they come back to the fore he sounds great again. Maybe, if he finds a different, less naïve and blunt way of expressing his impassioned political views, he will find a route into that echelon of revenant genius. But he’s not there yet.