Morrissey . Ringleader of the Tormentors . Sanctuary
The really great, excellent, fantastic news is Morrissey’s yodeling again. Why did Morrissey stop yodeling? You can’t have enough of Morrissey yodeling. We got a fever for the yodeling, like on the live version of the Smiths’ “What She Said” — when he builds to a crescendo of sniveling, sneering, taunting and head-spinning la la la las that sound as if they’re coming out of a deranged cuckoo clock. On Morrissey’s newest LP, Ringleader of the Tormentors, you get that lovin’ feeling back, notably on “I Will See You In Far Off Places” and “The Youngest Was the Most Loved,” the latter featuring a kiddie chorus chiming in with the apropos lyric, “There is no such thing in life as normal.”
The less fantastic news: another new Morrissey record, more cheap shots at L.A. Morrissey living here as long as he did always seemed like a colossal joke, mostly to critics who keep painting our fair city as a cultural ashtray where aging rock stars come to burn out. Or, as The Guardian’s Dorian Lynskey simply put it after the release of 2004’s You Are the Quarry, “a city with neither heart nor history.” Dial-a-cliché, indeed. Of course, this is the same city, and the same cult following, that launched countless curioso stories and, in essence, put Morrissey back on the musical map. Moz Angeles, that we still are: the annual convention (June 25), birthday show (May 22), cover bands (we just simply cannot give you any more ink, Sweet and Tender Hooligans), and documentaries that captured it all (William Jones’ Is It Really So Strange?). And let’s not forget the L.A.-based watering hole (morrissey-solo.com) that announces his whereabouts even before he leaves the house. But who needs mass adulation from young — and increasingly younger — fans when you’re 25 years into your career? Who needs a bunch of kids stalking you every day outside your home on 1498 Sweetzer Avenue .?.?. oops. Hmmm. Maybe this is why he split for Rome. Shoot.
So we guess Stephano is now hanging his Gucci suits next to Gina Lollobrigida instead of Nancy Sinatra. And that’s fine, ’cause we can swallow our civic pride and admit that the loosely L.A.-inspired Quarry was a bit of a snoozer, heralded mostly as a “comeback.” (A comeback in exile was what they were also saying.)
Musically and vocally he just seems to have nailed it on Tormentors — wouldn’t tormented be more correct? The single “You Have Killed Me” sounds more like tame album filler on which he mostly name drops his Italian idols, like Pier Paolo Pasolini and Anna Magnani. But every Morrissey record has that singular track with the best guitar riffs — Vauxhall & i’s “Billy Budd,” Quarry’s “Irish Blood, English Heart” — this side of the Smiths. And on Ringleader, it’s the wonderfully jingly-jangly, should-be-a-radio-hit “In the Future When All’s Well.” Credit his band, who’ve always been unfairly looked at as hired hands, even 15-year partner and all-around rockabilly hero Boz Boorer. Now, Morrissey’s completed the Bowie ring, having worked with Mick Ronson for 1992’s Your Arsenal, and this time around nabbing producer Tony Visconti (T. Rex), who’s gotten him trespassing on some new musical terrain: thunderous strings, flamenco guitar and sleazy horns. The Ennio Morricone–orchestrated “Dear God Please Help Me” is Morrissey’s “Whiter Shade of Pale,” a funeral-organ score that has him “walking through Rome with my heart on a string.”
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Lyrically, you’ll always be on the fence with Morrissey. Take him as he is, or the way you wish him to be: self-deprecating yet pompous; an open wound yet celebrated introvert; constantly announcing his greatness yet knowing full well you couldn’t care less. But it’s the way he takes those contradictions and always manages to pull a clever switcheroo: “To me you are a work of art/And I would give you my heart/That’s if I had one,” he teases on another Tormentors number. His wit is a well that will never run dry. The track making the most clamor, though, is the sexually frank “Dear God” — something about “explosive kegs between my legs,” “his hand on my knee” and “spreading your legs with mine in between.” Where’s the vicar? Nothing wrong with a little slap-and-tickle, but it’s not like he just got out of prison. This is a man who turns awkwardness into art and has repression seeping out of his pores. But he’s done this before — didn’t he once tell us to “call me morbid call me pale,” in one song, and command, “I crack the whip and you skip,” in another? (See, there’s that switcheroo.) We’ll have him either way. He takes his newly found liberation one step further on “At Last I Am Born” and practically shouts from the rooftops “I once was a mess of guilt of the flesh/It’s remarkable what you can learn/Once you are born, born, born.” Well, if it took Rome to get Morrissey to toss his hat in the air, then by all means, more meatless lasagna, and cop another feel.