They whine about his whining. They moan about his moaning. They mock him when he's joking and they joke about him when he's deadly serious. They are, of course, The People Who Do Not Like Morrissey. And they are oh so very stupid and so cruel, oh aren't they?
Ringleader of the Tormentors won't change their tiny minds. It's typical Morrissey, but not vintage. In fact I hated it on first listen, hearing nothing but bombastic sludge and strain. After 2004's You Are the Quarry, the highest-selling record of his career and Morrissey's best since his debut, Viva Hate, way back in 1988, Ringleader of the Tormentors feels rushed and underdone in both the songwriting and arrangements. Considering You Are the Quarry was his comeback after six contract-less years away from the scene, a follow-up record lacking the same depth and will is no great surprise.
Now living in Rome, the Nabob of Sob and Prince of Ponce has elected to work with producer Tony Visconti, famed for his associations with classic David Bowie and T-Rex as well as one-off curios for Adam Ant and Sparks. It's natural Morrissey should be drawn to the hidden gay aesthetics that emanate out of these old vinyl grooves. Perfect collisions of pop and rock, they evoke a more intellectual style of '70s glam and its later influence on punk pop, as well as the metallic '50s stomp that underlined and propelled its cat-like, extravagant surfaces with something primitive and assertive.
You can see this in Morrissey's Teddy-boy quiff and English working-class laments, in the loneliness he dresses up with Oscar Wilde flourishes and the Gary Glitter thump-a-billy he sometimes relishes like rough trade amid refinement. The problem is, Morrissey is almost always better when he leans towards pop, as songs like The Smiths' "This Charming Man," early solo efforts like "Late Night, Maudlin Street" and "I'm Not Sorry" from You Are the Quarry indicate. The desire to rock, in Morrissey's world, all too often creates something chill, brash and leaden. He becomes Alvin Stardust without the fun.
You might think back to a Smiths classic like "How Soon Is Now" to contradict that, but a close listen to it actually proves my point: Johnny Marr's shimmering, iceberg guitar line, Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke's drum and bass entry, equally immense and yet reined in like a tide. Morrissey's current band just can't do this, good as they are. Deep down somewhere, they feel like a band yearning to be The Smiths, a mood not entirely contrary to the very heart of Morrissey's aesthetic tensions. Visconti's frosty production only emphasizes their shortcomings on Ringleader of the Tormentors. Let's be honest: Morrissey the fan has gone into a sound here that belongs to his boyhood fantasies of macho glamour, to artists alive and pulsing and ready to dance and reinvent themselves, not someone older and sad and sly and determined to stay.
And yet something in Ringleader of the Tormentors has pulled me back towards
it just when I thought I had finished with it. Aggressive lyrical pearlers like "The
youngest was the most loved, the youngest was the most shielded, we kept him
from the glare of the world and he turned into a killer" ("The Youngest Was the
Most Loved"). The epic "Life Is a Pigsty," with its mid-tempo drums and piano
and thunderstorm samples breaking as Morrissey intones "it's the same old SOS,
but with brand new broken fortunes," then the sudden falling away into a chorus
that sounds every inch like a man walking away from love or perhaps being walked
The fact that most of the best songs here are buried in the second half, as if
to test our patience, or demand we try harder to reach into the listening experience,
is just another Morrissey folly perhaps. His vocals, better than ever, so announced
and sorrowfully deep, with that ecstatic trademark yodel of his lifting up the
moment or surrendering it in regret, still raise a tremble in the heart. As do
all those lines Morrissey delivers so blackly and hilariously. And, of course,
the strange pride that sounds so noble, so grand in spite of it all.