Years of Refusal(Attack/Lost Highway/Decca)
US release date: 17 February 2009
UK release date: 16 February 2009
by John Bergstrom
Moz 'n' Boz Get Their Mojo Back
Morrissey has always attempted toportray himself as the outsider’s outsider. His career and his iconic statushave affirmed that it’s been an overwhelmingly successful endeavor. Especiallyin his native UK, the music press continues to crane its neck in his directionwith regularity, like a jock keeping tabs on the misfit kid in the corner whoalways aces his science project. When he became rich and famous and moved toSouthern California, Morrissey was accused of hypocrisy and criminalpretension. How could someone in that position possiblyidentify with people who didn’t fit in, much less maintain he was oneof those people. But those accusations missed the point. Morrissey in LA isMorrissey in Manchester is Morrissey in Rome. Maybe the reason his outsideridentity has endured is also the simplest and least impeachable one. It’s genuine.
Like most outsiders, Morrissey ishyper-aware of what attention the worlddoes pay to him. In otherwords, he’s not above caring about things like chart positions and recordsales. You Are the Quarry, his 2004 comeback, became hiscareer-to-date bestseller. Many factors conspired to produce this success. Asignificant one was Jerry Finn’s slick, glossy, adult-alternative-friendlyproduction. Finn had made his name producing slick, glossy pop-punk albums forMxPx and Blink 182. He was instrumental in restoring Morrissey’s commercialcredibility at a time when Morrissey was in dire need of it. For the follow-up,2006’s Ringleader of the Tormentors, Morrissey tapped veteran TonyVisconti to produce, making good on a long-mooted partnership. The albumreceived pretty good reviews and sold respectably, but was nowhere near thesmash You Are the Quarry had been.
So, Morrissey didn’t hesitate to turnback to Finn for Years of Refusal. Visconti’s lush, spaciousorchestrations are out, replaced by Finn’s more radio-friendly sheen. Butthere’s a difference this time. For someone who makes a point of being soemotionally sensitive, Morrissey is obsessed with classic, old-school masculinetoughness. You don’t have to look any further than the fixations on criminals,gangsters, and boxing that can be traced throughout his career. On Yearsof Refusal, this obsession plays out in the music as well as the picturesleeves and the lyrics.
Years of Refusal is Morrissey’s leanest, meanest, loudest record since1992’s Your Arsenal. The adult-alternative bit is pretty much gone,replaced by a “lads-only night in the studio” vibe. Since Your Arsenal,Moz’s band, rotating membership and all, have always looked like hoods. Here,they play like hoods, too, cranking up the volume and lettingloose with explosive guitars, rattling bass, and earth-shattering drums. WithMoz within a hair’s breadth of 50, the unspoken premise is that age can beovercome with pure bombast. And on Years of Refusal‘s incredibleopening salvo, the execution works better than it has any right to.
By now you might well have read about“Something is Squeezing My Skull”. It packs a breathless, power-guitar riff,irresistible chorus, and thermal meltdown of an ending, in which Morrissey isurged on by guitarist Boz Boorer’s shouts, into two minutes. And it’s not shorton Morrissey’s sharp-as-ever wit, either. “I’m doing very well / I can blockout the present and the past now”, he claims, proceeding to rattle off a list ofprescription drugs that help him do so. This is followed by the in-your-facerhythmic punch of “Mama Lay Softly on the Riverbed” and the devilishglam/rockabilly of “Black Cloud”, which puts a twist on the reflexive bass rifffrom Your Arsenal track “Tomorrow” and features some mean andmoody guitar from… Jeff Beck? Yes, Jeff Beck!
On paper, it might well soundhorrible, an aging icon grasping for a mojo that just isn’t there any more.Even when you first hear these tracks, you can’t help but think of Morrisseyfronting Social Distortion, and all the wrongness that implies. But then theevidence sinks in. The songs, mostly co-penned by mainstays Boorer and AlainWhyte, are mostly wicked good, the lyrics are intriguing enough, andvocally, Moz is up to the task. In fact, throughout Years of Refusal,he sounds younger than he has in at least a decade. With the band pushing himrather than simply covering his back, he sounds invigorated, stretching,twisting, and doing that wordless yodeling thing more convincingly than he hassince his Smiths days.
Not all of Years of Refusal isbombast, either. The band show they can complement Morrissey’s morecontemplative material as well. Single “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris” is atypical latter-day midtempo Morrissey number, elegant and unfussy, only it’sbuoyed by exemplary musical and vocal melodies. “You Were Good in Your Time”,the only one of the dozen tracks here that stretches beyond a few minutes, isso languid, the synth-strings so glacial, it’s very nearly trip-hop.
“It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore”harnesses the best of both worlds, delicate, emotionally naked verses harshlyinterrupted by a pounding, anthemic chorus. While the title may suggestself-parody, Morrissey pulls it off, shattering the contrivance of a pleasantcelebration with… real love? When he sings, “All the gifts that they gave can’tcompare in any way / to the love I am now giving to you / right here right nowon the floor,” it certainly sounds that way. Or is the reference to somethingthat “cannot be given / so it must be taken” far darker? These questions makethe track affecting rather than just a good tune. Morrissey seems to sense it,too, emoting wordlessly, sincerely, with unprecedented passion. As a bonus,even rockers like “Mother Lay Softly on the Riverbed” and “Black Cloud” havemoments of unexpected beauty.
It’s debatable whether any ofMorrissey’s preceding eight studio albums can rightly be considered a classicfrom start to finish. Alas, to ask that of Years of Refusal wouldbe too much. The decision to include the two singles from 2008’s GreatestHits, especially the undistinguished “That’s How People Grow Up”, isquestionable. “When Last I Spoke to Carol” takes a valiant stab at mariachimusic, and misses. “Sorry Doesn’t Help”, which sounds like a mediocre bar bandtrying to do glam, is just horrible. And the question of whether Morrissey’slashing out at critics and doubters has become pathological still looms, as ithas for the last decade.
No, Years of Refusal,though it contains several songs that could be among his best, is no classic.But it doesn’t need to be. Morrissey has earned the right to sit back andbecome his generation’s Sinatra, and most of his fans would be perfectly happywith that. Instead, with this record, he’s had a go at holding his own with theyoung whippersnappers instead. And he’s succeeded.