It’s not easy being a Morrissey fan. Most will admit that he’s never exactly been an ideal man to like, despite first arriving on the scene bespeckled, charming, and coolly fronting The Smiths in 1984. He had warned us early on in the classic “Bigmouth Strikes Again” that speaking out wasn’t his strong suit, yet I doubt many would’ve guessed then that the skinny lad from Manchester named Morrissey would eventually become more known for his controversial statements, gaffes, and demands than his music. While the man is nothing but prolific – having released a successful autobiography, novel, and now his eleventh solo studio album just in the last few years – he is not without his faults.
Most recently, he came to the defense of men like Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein in the face of their sexual allegations, equated eating animals to supporting the Holocaust, and admitted he’d kill President Trump “for the safety of humanity.” And all that happened in just one interview!
Now, I will openly admit to having loved The Smiths, paid to see Morrissey even after he’s cancelled shows on me, bought his music and merchandise, and generally suffered a great deal as a “Self-Inflicted Morrissey Apologist” over the years. But in the opening track of his new album Low In High School, when Moz sings, “You need me just like I need you,” I couldn’t help but question something. Does Morrissey even need me? Does he need any of us? With all signs pointing to no, I asked myself a more difficult question: do we need Morrissey in 2017?
Back in September, the release of the first single “Spent The Day In Bed” heightened expectations for the album and seemed to be a promising start. Catchy guitar plucks, scratchy percussion, and groovy pedal effects back the melodic chorus of “Stop watching the news / because the news contrives to frighten you / to make you feel small and alone / to make you feel like your mind isn’t your own.” It’s a classic Moz ditty, rife with paranoia, self-loathing, and just enough political bark to include some bite. “All The Young People Must Fall In Love,” perhaps the best song on the record, takes a similar route with upbeat, stomp-clap verses and catchy turns of phrase like “Presidents come, presidents go / oh look at the damage they do / all the young people must fall in love.” Moz will never fail to be bitter towards political leadership, but he still has hope in the youth—a sentiment we can all attach ourselves to.
The memorable “Home Is A Question Mark” likewise presents Morrissey at his finest; soft bells and dramatic strings highlight his personal ideas of home in a meaningful and nostalgic way. “Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up On The Stage” tells a classic, focused Morrissey narrative that doesn’t particularly feel new, but features a notable bass line and moody guitar. Another cut with stronger orchestration than lyrical content is “Who Will Protect Us From The Police?,” an unexpectedly dancey track with pulsing synths, pounding drums, and a thoughtful use of horns. If the record featured only these tracks, it would’ve been enough to love.
Unfortunately, the steady balance of fresh orchestration with strong lyrical narratives runs out quickly on Low In High School. The synth-heavy and mostly forgettable “I Wish You Lonely” includes expected Moz lines like “To hell with everybody else” and “I wish you lonely / like the last tracked humpback whale” while “In Your Lap” and “When You Open Your Legs” epitomize the version of Morrissey who would rather hide and throw himself into sex before facing the horrors of the world. Like much of Moz’s later work, “In Your Lap” comes across as equal parts disturbing and beautiful. Soft piano keys echo with Morrissey’s even softer voice into a haunting ballad nearly ruined by the absurdity of these opening lines: “The Arab Spring called us all / the people win when the dictators fall / I heard a bang and almighty crack / And I just want my face in your lap.” More than anything, it doesn’t feel as if new ground is being covered in these songs. After 11 solo albums, you don’t want listeners to think, same Morrissey, same shit, different day, but that’s exactly the feeling that arises.
Most regrettably, the record’s low points stem from Moz’s attempts to make his most controversial statements yet. In “I Bury The Living,” Morrissey takes on the voice of a soldier not unlike Muse on their last album Drones, except that Moz is more disparaging than critical and more mocking than helpful. “Give me an order / I’ll blow up a border / Give me an order / and I’ll blow up your daughter” falls flat in context and feels only slightly less tone-deaf than the entirety of “The Girl From Tel-Aviv That Wouldn’t Kneel.” Nothing comes close to the abysmal and cringe-inducing album-closer “Israel,” which left me feeling nothing but embarrassment and the desire to scream, Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should! Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should!
When Morrissey sings, “You realize if you’re happy / Jesus sends you straight to Hell / Israel,” I can’t help but feel as if the entire song is emblematic of the man Morrissey has become. At one point, he was indeed the voice of the rejected, deserted, and those who felt silenced. So, it certainly makes sense that Moz would want to connect on some level with Israelis as God’s chosen, yet deserted people. But ultimately, do the people of Israel really need someone like Morrissey to remind them, “I can’t answer for what armies do / They are not you”? Sure, there are technically worse people available to discuss peace in the Middle East, but there are also way, way more qualified and better people available than Steven Patrick Morrissey.
Despite a few high points, Low In High School reveals the disturbing reality that we might not need Morrissey in 2017 anymore than he needs us. This isn’t the type of work that will inspire those who don’t already worship the former Smiths’ front man to kneel at the altar—in fact, it might even drive some fans away. In light of his recent comments, it appears that Morrissey is no longer the voice of the oppressed, but sympathetic of the oppressor. This won’t be the last time Bigmouth has struck, but it may be the last time I defend him.
Album Highlights: “Spent The Day In Bed,” “All The Young People Must Fall In Love,” “Home Is A Question Mark”