There's no room for vagueness when you're only releasing two or three albums a decade
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Right on cue, as Morrissey releases his 10th solo album, the world’s attention moves to conflict in the Middle East. As I’m typing, the latest update is that Israeli forces are dropping leaflets in northern Gaza, warning Palestinian residents to move away from Hamas sites to avoid military strikes. The death toll of the attacks so far is approaching 170, which includes too many kids. As it turns out, the title track on World Peace Is None of Your Business — an ironic take on the value of democracy — opens the album, but it’s a deceptive start because it’s by far the most political song here. Also present are “Staircase at the University”, which satirizes academic expectations, and “I’m Not a Man”, which handcuffs popular notions of masculinity. Together, these three songs span the continuum of the Manchester native’s wisdom and accompanying snark. Those ingredients are key for tabulating his legacy with both The Smiths and as a solo artist, and also make sure this is definitively a Morrissey album.
From the beginning, many perceived Morrissey (and, to a lesser extent, his songwriting partner, Johnny Marr) as arrogant, which ultimately comes down to The Smiths’ artistic sureness throughout their incredibly productive four-year existence. They knew what they wanted, and soon enough, meaningful art was expected from them. World Peace Is None of Your Business, recorded in France with help from producer Joe Chiccarelli (The Strokes, Young the Giant, My Morning Jacket), has purpose, too. Musically, there are callbacks to Smiths and Morrissey solo albums going back more than 20 years, be it the sashaying pop of “Kiss Me a Lot” or the more ornate “Staircase at the University”. But there are also glimmers of a more refined taste; it’s one of the most European albums Morrissey has made, with ingredients like flamenco guitar, trumpet, and accordion. Meanwhile, based on this album alone, the age-old question of whether he’s an optimist despite all his dread should be answered in the negative. Thankfully, his ideas are still clear, written as they are under the assumption that there’s no room for vagueness when you’re only releasing two or three albums a decade.
Right away, “World Peace Is None of Your Business” is directed at you, the potential voter. Morrissey, who was clowning Margaret Thatcher as soon as he had an adequate stage, laments the stagnation of political unrest (i.e., what’s improving in nations that need the most monitoring?) while pretending it’s no big deal if we don’t know where our tax money is going. The message is agreeable, of course, and the titular refrain is one of the strongest on the album. The next op-ed, the eight-minute “I’m Not a Man”, which follows the two-chords-at-a-time fuzzbox stomp of “Neal Cassady Drops Dead”, is easily the biggest drag here. For that reason, it simply comes too early on the album. But while “I’m Not a Man” relies on simple stereotypes to makes its point (“T-bone steak/ Wolf down/ Cancer of the prostate,” goes the vegetarian), at least Morrissey knew exactly what he wanted to say. That’s the album in a nutshell: He’s been doing this songwriting thing long enough to know how to carry out his vision, at least once a central structure or passage presents itself. In the case of World Peace, it sounds like a lot of those initial sparks — the chord progressions, the hooks, etc. — illuminated the process even more than usual.
“Istanbul”, which details a difficult father-son relationship, is one of the only spots on the album where the blasting electric guitars don’t sound clunky; Boz Boorer and Jesse Tobias’s riffs are strong enough to drive the entire song. Accordingly, the remainder of the medium-rocking thing, which includes another successful hook, runs smooth. The sweeping “Staircase at the University” — which follows a young lady who studies hard for months only to come up short, GPA-wise, to the disappointment of her fam and friends — has a breeziness in direct conflict with the absurdist bloodshed: “Staircase at the university/ She threw herself down and her head split three ways.” (What’s more, something about the song, possibly the clapping rhythms, suggests Moz has a decent electropop record in him.) The album’s penultimate track, “Mountjoy”, is an acoustic-oriented getaway, its strums melting into one another and brushing beautifully against the arching, deliberate vocal.
Of course, Morrissey’s voice (that ageless wonder, always so fragile yet so under control) is the one guaranteed success here. Predictably, it’s the riskiest choices that pay the fewest dividends. “I’m Not a Man” is a slow-goer with uneven pacing and guitar work that hangs in the air, whereas it should match the snare’s pop. “Neal Cassady Drops Dead” has those macho guitar chords, which practically contradict the premise of “I’m Not a Man”. Finally, the closer, “Oboe Concerto”, is too loosely connected with its seemingly improvised instrumentation and digital zips, zaps, and drips, all of which distract from the song’s foundation, its basic shape. Fortunately, the album on the whole has enough of Morrissey’s strengths — the ones he established with Marr and co., first causing NME journos to wet their trousers 30 years ago — to be a mostly serviceable Morrissey album. More importantly, it’s destined for enough success that he probably won’t regret his delayed retirement.
Essential Tracks: “Istanbul”, “Staircase at the University”, and “Mountjoy”
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