I guess Morrissey was always going to cut a controversial figure; as lead singer of The Smiths in the mid 80’s Morrissey reshaped the music of a generation while simultaneously cutting a “love him, hate him” image. The man is both brilliant inspirational but prone to the frequent foot-in-mouth moment. We like our heroes to be perfect gods whereas Morrissey is mere mortal.
However whatever you might think of Morrissey personally, he was never musically beige wallpaper; until now at least. 2017’s release of the eleventh solo Morrissey album, Low in High School makes a grand attempt at offering a relevant message; Morrissey puts the theme of this album as “Can Young People ever be care-free again?” in an interview, but the outcome falls rather short of his ambitions and I can’t imagine it winning him many new friends, or finding its tracks cited as Morrissey classics.
To be fair to the album there’s a reasonable variety of pace and story, but the years has blunted the Morrissey hard edge. The slick but cloying production rather makes the overall sound feel like a cut price and boggy attempt at a glitzy, glamour Marc Almond recording (and I’d much rather listen to Almond any day of the week). Fortunately, one plus is that Morrissey has kept his voice over the years; there’s no weary world worn old-man Bowie delivery here. However, given the music is either a tired re-run of previous glories or rolling towards overblown mess, overall the most we can really salvage from Low in High School is an investigation of the lyrics and the themes in the songs.
Distinct highlight of the album is Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on the Stage, a typically cynical analogy, delivered in Morrissey bouncy style, and describing the flashy, say-it-like-it-were-true approach of the pro-Brexit campaign. Spent the Day in Bed enables us to envelop ourselves in our own bubble, with a message about how brain rotting and self-destructive following the news is; I guess the current affairs obsessed Morrissey should know. I certainly subscribe to the view that even if you viciously publically object to every utterance of the likes of Mr Trump, you are still playing to his tune and discussing the things he puts on the agenda. This is why Trump wins even when you hate him.
If I were to pick a third worth-while track, I’d have a stab at the opener, My Love, I’d Do Anything For You. It really could only be Morrissey who opens an album with the clumsy line of “Teach your kids to recognize and despise all the propaganda filtered down by the dead echelons mainstream media”. The edgy tune suits Morrissey’s 1984 nightmare vision well.
The Girl from Tel-Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel, has a very corny show tune (think of the conclusion of the Two Ronnies), but is a song which loosely references Etty Hillesum, a woman who famously wouldn’t kneel to the Nazis and ended up dying in Auschwitz. This song encapsulates the Low in High School album overall; high on ambition but lacking in direction; the subject matter is well worth highlighting but Morrissey rambles off into a diatribe about how war is fought for oil.
Another controversial track is the closer Israel; this track highlights Morrissey’s appreciation of the state, although I think to suggest that critics of the political policies of the country amount to nothing more than “jealousy” is naive in the extreme. The track is firmly in the “overblown” category and I’m sure if you listen closely you can hear “kitchen sink” in the overdubbing somewhere. Interestingly, the winner of the hotly contested title of pointless track of the album goes to the track that immediately precedes Israel, Who Will Protect Us From The Police, a very disposable track about the horrors of a Police state. Conflicted is the word that runs through this album.
On the one hand it’s great that Morrissey pushing 60 is still thinking about the world and has the need to want to share his views to influence and to make his audience think. Morrissey is always a voice worth hearing as a result. However, on the other hand, I can’t help but wish that Morrissey took a little time to think about the contradictions and conflicts within his message, and that he realised that just because he can produce a lavishly prepared and manicured album he doesn’t have to, and “stripped back” has its place.