Review: Morrissey’s “Years Of Refusal”

Feb 24, 2009 6:16pm

  Morrissey is a polarizing figure.  Either you love him to death, and think he’s a genius or you think he’s profoundly annoying.  Until “Years Of Refusal,” I was closer to the latter.  He always seemed arrogant and dramatic to me as a performer. That being said, I always respected him as a writer.  The Smiths’ song “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” is an unquestionably, brilliantly beautiful, dark piece of music. I’m pleased to say that on “Years Of Refusal,” Morrissey has finally fully won me over.  The album sounds great and rocks surprisingly hard.  It’s the best record he has released in quite some time.  Morrissey finally seems comfortable in his skin.  It’s a weird idea considering his lyrics have always been full of eloquently-phrased self-loathing sentiments.   Perhaps because his tunes are so well-focused here and each track is an enthralling listen, his wordy lyrical style doesn’t annoy as much as before.  It just goes to show, after all these years making music, Morrissey has proven that he’s found room to grow.  The album’s sound is partly due to producer Jerry Finn.  Sadly, Finn died suddenly last August after suffering a brain hemorrhage. He was only 39.  Finn was known for his work with Blink 182, Green Day and others, so his California-fueled punk-pop style is all over this record.  It makes for a nice contrast with Morrissey’s down-trodden lyrics. The two of them previously worked on Morrissey’s 2004 comeback album, “You Are The Quarry” with great success.  This album is better.  It’s a testament to Finn’s skill as a producer and he and Morrissey worked really well together. It’s a shame he’s gone.  The backup band here is also really tight.  The drumming on this record for instance is by Matt Walker.  You may remember that Walker temporarily drummed for Smashing Pumpkins during the period when Jimmy Chamberlin was kicked out of the band.  Also, one of the guitarists on this record is Jesse Tobias.  In the mid-nineties, Tobias became momentarily famous for almost becoming a Red Hot Chili Pepper.  (The band eventually went with Dave Navarro, instead.)  The landscape is noticeably rougher right away when “Something Is Squeezing My Skull” begins the album.  It’s fast-paced and rough, but glorious and polished at the same time.  Much like Jerry Finn’s other work.  Suddenly, Morrissey’s very familiar, operatically cupped vocals make a striking entrance.  “I’m doing very well.  I can block out the present and the past now.” Lyrically, it’s typical Morrissey, but he seems steadier on his feet, and the when the chorus comes in and he hits the high-note on the word “skull,” you know that he’s perhaps in a better place than ever before.  “Mama Lay Softly On The Riverbed” is a dense, dramatic, marching-beat driven number about death and “persecution” by “pigs in grey suits.”  It’s heavy-handed, but it works and it isn’t over the top.   The hardness of the performance adds force and urgency.  Within a softer sonic context, Morrissey’s lyrics would’ve overpowered the track.  “Black Cloud” plays sonically like an update to Morrissey’s 2004 single, “Irish Blood, English Heart.”  Finn and this back-up band give him a tightly wound feeling.  It’s a very different sound from the jangling guitars on the Smiths’ records, but it is a sound which suits him well.  It opens up a whole new energy and makes his delivery that much more vital.  Jeff Beck also makes a guest appearance on this song.  The single, “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris” is two-and-a-half minutes of pop glory.  Is he talking about weapons? He sings, “I’m throwing my arms around Paris because only stone and steel accept my love.” It’s a pretty upsetting image wrapped in a bright, upbeat package.  “All You Need Is Me” thunders in, packed with aggression.  It’s an argument who the “Me” actually is this song.  Knowing Morrissey, it’s actually probably something obtuse and conceptual like life, existence or fame.  “When I Last Spoke To Carol” has a Latin tone.  With the quickly strummed acoustic guitars and the horns, it sounds like it’s Morrissey’s best attempt to try his hand at being a Mariachi singer.  At one point a whistle comes in.  Given that the song has funeral imagery, it pushes Morrissey almost to his dramatic breaking point.  Luckily, it finds the bar and stops.  “That’s How People Grow Up” is also rather dramatic.  The opera singer at the beginning sets the grandiose tone.  This song is a typical Morrissey confessional full of lyrics about how “disappointment…bruised and hurt” him.  Once again, the melody and the backdrop are good enough to distract the listener from what would normally be his downfall.  This is a great song, delivered well, nonetheless.  “One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell” is another tightly-wound example of Morrissey’s work, with awkward, uncomfortably quotable lines like “Always be careful when you abuse the ones you love,” or “the smiling children tell you that you smell.” The horn section comes back at the end for dramatic effect, while the drums keep a somewhat demanding marching rhythm. “It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore” begins softly and then grows and bursts into something rather grand and anthemic.  This would be a dynamic single. At over five-minutes, it seems like an epic statement.  “You Were Good In Your Time” is the closest to overdramatic Morrissey gets on this record.  Those who love him will enjoy this song.  Those who find him overblown and irksome will want to change tracks.  This is a bold, string-section-assisted torch song filled with many lyrical Morrissey-isms.   The final minute of the song is rather ambient, atmospheric and strange, but intriguing. The rock edge is relocated on the tempo-shifting, “Sorry Doesn’t Help.”  This also stands as a highlight and is single-worthy.  It begins slowly then takes off without looking back.  It’s one of the more appealing tracks on the set.  The album ends on an uncharacteristically upbeat note.  Not only is the last track a rocker, but it’s called “I’m OK By Myself.”  (Really?  Morrissey is finally going to say something positive about himself in his lyrics? I think he’s made progress!!)  He takes a darkly funny approach to song’s sentiment by saying, “Now this might disturb you, / But I find I’m OK by myself, / And I don’t need you or your benevolence to make sense.”  Within the context of a Morrissey record, I’m pretty sure this is intended as a punch-line.  Even if the song has passing references to violence and isolation.  This isn’t only a standout, but it actually might be the best, most defining statement on the album.  He saved his ultimate shining moment for last.  Interestingly, the album also comes in a deluxe edition, featuring a DVD with several live performances and a bizarrely surreal interview with Russell Brand of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” fame, called “Wrestling With Russell.”  This interview works both ways for Morrissey.  On the positive side, it humanizes him and it shows he’s able to laugh a bit.  On the negative side, he dodges just about every question and says ridiculous things like, “Some people are art.” He comes off as an enigma who is very proud of what he has done, but at a very egotistical level.  Watching this interview is both fascinating and frustrating.  Both Morrissey and Brand continue to dance around each other with great skill.  Brand tries to get Morrissey to crack and tell him something real, while Morrissey keeps redirecting his own questions toward Brand.  When Brand gets nowhere with his questions, he starts acting out and saying outrageous things.  The more Morrissey withholds, the more outrageous Brand becomes.  Both men pontificate at great length, but we don’t really learn anything about either of them. It’s still an interesting viewing experience because it’s a slight glimpse into the life of Morrissey as a regular guy.  It’s pretty amazing he said yes to this interview at all.  He comes off as a very private individual.  In all, “Years Of Refusal” stands as a great surprise and it should win Morrissey some new fans.  It gives his music a different sound and it’s a very catchy, appealing record.  Sure, on the album cover, he looks like he’s holding that baby for ransom.  (That’s an odd picture!)  Sure, he’s still quite unusual, but he knows what he’s doing.  “Years Of Refusal” is one of Morrissey’s strongest albums to date. 

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