Whether Morrissey himself would agree with such an assessment of Ringleader is uncertain, but all that’s known for certain is that his latest album, Years of Refusal, finds him paired with Mr. Finn once again. Sadly, it’s for the last time, as the producer succumbed to the effects of a massive cerebral hemorrhage not long after completing his work on the project, but at least it can be said that he went out on a strong note.
Years of Refusal is the album that should have followed You Are the Quarry. After messing about with songs that rocked more than they popped and trying to get epic but only ending up bloated, Finn has succeeded in getting Morrissey back on track and steered him into a collection consisting almost entirely of perfect-world hit singles. First up: "Something Is Squeezing My Skull," co-written by longtime band member Alan Whyte – who, ironically, doesn’t actually perform on the album – and featuring both a soaring chorus and a finale where drummer Matt Walker sounds like he’s giving it his best Animal impression. (Seriously, it’s a total "beat drums" moment.) Whyte is also the co-writer of "When I Last Spoke to Carol," which sounds like someone – either he or Morrissey – had been listening to quite a lot of Lee Hazlewood immediately prior to composition. Dig those mariachi horns! The brass returns to kick ass later in the album on "One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell," which features one of those lyrics that is inimitably Morrissey:
"And the smiling children tell you that you smell
Well, just look at me, a savage beast, I’ve got nothing to sell
And when I die I want to go to hell"
It’s fair to say that the strongest portion of Years of Refusal is the first two-thirds of the record, where every song comes in at under the four-minute mark and it’s all very catchy and easily-digestible alt-rock. "I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris" is very much a classic Morrissey single, sounding like it could’ve come from the midst of his solo era on Sire, Jeff Beck contributes guest guitar to the slightly unsettling but very awesome "Black Cloud," and the lyrics of "All You Need Is Me" play like a less-threatening sequel to "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get." ("You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone," Morrissey assures us.) Selecting the longest four tracks to close the record is a masterstroke of sequencing, since most anyone will have been sufficiently impressed by the songs which have preceded them to accept a couple of five-minute numbers, though "You Were Good In Your Time" spends too long being too languid for its own good.
Still, if there’s one thing that Years of Refusal proves, it’s that Finn had the ability to get Morrissey to imbue his songs with good-humored swagger without wrapping them in ego. This shouldn’t be taken to suggest that Moz hasn’t continued to experience personal growth on his own. After all, once upon a time, it would’ve been unimaginable for the man to close an album with a song entitled "I’m OK By Myself." (It’s also particularly notable on this track just how strong his voice remains even 25 years on from the first Smiths album.) With this sentiment out there for all to hear, let us hope that Morrissey can take the tricks he learned under Finn’s tutelage and continue to follow the same path a bit better whenever he finds his way back to the studio again.