Written by Max Freedman
Modern music journalism has expanded to include coverage of artist drama that is often completely irrelevant to the music being made. This trend has become so pervasive that it can often interfere with listeners’ opinion of a musician’s work, and possibly even prevent potential new fans from approaching an artist in the first place. When readers learn about Jack White consistently calling out The Black Keys, or see that Arcade Fire’s figurehead Win Butler goes out of his way to insult electronic music, chances are they aren’t as likely to listen to these vastly talented musicians. Worse yet, longtime fans may grow wary of what appears to be the emotional breakdown associated with a post-career-peak artistic decline.
No musician has endured this dilemma more heavily than Morrissey has in the past year or so. Constant reporting on the former Smiths frontman’s perpetual beef with meat-eaters and British royalty is nothing new; inescapable coverage of Morrissey’s various illnesses, tour cancellations, and the like are more recent events that have tarnished his already controversial stature. The internet’s reaction to these reports has ranged from accusations of mental illness to sympathy for a man in an understatedly dangerous physical situation. Music journalists have created a veritable storm around Morrissey, one that is bound to negatively influence everyone’s opinion of his tenth solo effort, World Peace Is None of Your Business.
Luckily for musicians like Morrissey, a good number of listeners wholly disregard an artist’s personality and beliefs in favor of enjoying genuinely great music. Hell, if PJ Harvey can still win over most critics over a decade after supporting fox hunting (I am just one of many people who remains an avid fan despite the fact that she essentially implied ambivalence towards murder), why should anyone let Morrissey’s burden obscure opinions of the music, the actual topic of interest?
For Morrissey, and especially for World Peace Is None of Your Business, however, many of his recent actions tie directly into the lyrical themes presented in his music. Political statements are nothing new for him – this is a guy who had no qualms about penning the lyrics to “Margaret on the Guillotine” for merely his debut album, now twenty-six years old – but on World Peace, the misanthropic cynicism he puts on is more than abundant. The first lyric on this album is its title, a choice that sets the stage for the unflagging statements to come.
Indeed, the very first verse of World Peace is among the most blatantly political of Morrissey’s three-decade career. “World peace is none of your business/you must not tamper with arrangements/work hard and sweetly pay your taxes/never asking what for/oh, you poor little fool” is about as crystal clear as it gets. “Mountjoy” isn’t holding back at all either: “What those in power do to you/reminds us at a glance/how humans hate each other’s guts/and show it given the chance” is later followed by “We all lose, rich or poor.”
Somewhere between these thematic extremes lies “I’m Not a Man”, which, surprise surprise, actually isn’t a tune about Morrissey’s heavily discussed sexuality. Instead, it fulfills the common prophecy that Morrissey’s vitriol towards world affairs comes with a good amount of pomp: “I’m not a man/I’d never kill or eat an animal/and I would never destroy this planet”, Morrissey humble-brags, later ditching all signs of humility for “I’m not a man/I’m something much bigger and better than a man.” It’s a set of words that highlight one of World Peace, and Morrissey in general’s, biggest flaws: he can identify the world’s problems quite well, but instead of offering solutions to them, he boasts about how he’s not in any way a contributor. Really, someone as intelligent as he should know that everyone plays a part in making the world a (literal) living hell.
All thematic concerns aside, though, World Peace is, of course, a collection of songs, not merely poems. In that regard, the album is a modest success. The arrangements and sounds on display here are the most theatrical (or, more accurately, most dramatic) of Morrissey’s career to date. Songs like “Kick the Bride Down the Aisle” and “Kiss Me a Lot” showcase instrumentation that’s inflated enough to qualify these songs for placement in a musical, and the vocal harmonies present on each amplify Morrissey’s singing to a degree of triumph often reserved for Broadway. “Neal Cassady Drops Dead” and “Staircase at the University” achieve this same effect by loading the instrumentation with enough reverb to fill the largest stadium imaginable. It all adds up to some pretty easy listening, which is a welcome surprise given the ferocity of The Smiths’ best moments.
The relaxed nature of World Peace is undoubtedly in stark contrast with its political, confrontational lyrics, but it’s a trait attributed to the musical influences rather than the words. Tropical buoyancy flows gracefully throughout the album’s entirety, and proves to be both a blessing and a curse. The spacious, flamenco-toned guitar work on “Smiler With Knife,” for example, is gracious and soothing, but it’s also a bit stale. “Staircase at the University” is bright and attention-grabbing in its liberal use of horns and tropical guitar groove, but it’s also a bit cheesy for the same reasons. Really, “Earth Is The Loneliest Planet” is the one tune here where the Caribbean sounds don’t act as detractors, instead providing the song with a clarity and propulsion that makes the song hard to deny.
At the end of it all, though, World Peace’s true downfall is just how dense it is. Its fixty-six minute runtime is quite an extensive period for any artist to advance such dramatic, weighty, thematic music. But then again, we’re talking about Morrissey here, someone whose lyrics are so idiosyncratic, wry, and funny that even an album this thick is still satisfying, and, dare I say it, peaceful?