Ringleader of the Tormentors - Morrissey

Morrissey, for so long adrift in the incongruous lanes of Los Angeles seems to have finally come alive on the streets of his new home Rome. His art has always laid in the tension of intense contradictions. The depressive wit, the withdrawn aesthete attracted to glamorous thuggery, the poet of shyness so utterly desperate for attention, this very conservative radical. The Irish blood of passion in the English heart of reserve if you like. On his new album the atavistic riotous Catholic streak of Irish blood is bubbling over in the ascendancy. The abandon has finally come to its fruition, in more ways than one. High drama is the result.

Ringleader of the Tormentors is where our hero "discovers sex" apparently. Hang on though, wasn't he having people seize his underwear on The Smiths' very first album? Maybe, but it does seem to have "come together" a bit better this time round...at least for a while.

Endure no error, he has found lust and love, though he may very well have lost it too. But it was clearly there. Whilst in his last album he seemed to find amazement in finding even friendship, in the rapturous tones of "Dear God Please Help Me" Morrissey finds exasperated wonder in much more explicitly physical realms. He not only has "explosive kegs between my legs" the man is even, Heaven Help Us, making it clear it's a "he" the kegs are after for a change! (not for the first time however, see 1995's "Swallow On My Neck" amongst others.) What may read as an embarrassing moment on a cold computer screen becomes a thing of real beauty in the song's sparse arrangement, building to a triumphant climax (sorry, but that's the only apposite word.) This slow build-up-and-explode melodic dynamic may have been the mainstay of the last album too, but is improved on further here.

The superb single "You Have Killed Me" continues the theme of sacrificial redemption through sensual human contact. "Passolini is me" proclaims the voice, slyly alluding to the love-life of the great Italian director, who himself found the "killing" so lavishly brought to life by the song only to be literally murdered himself:- run down in a car by a rent-boy. The French famously call a climax "the little death" -the metaphor reaches its vicious logical conclusion here.

This has been billed as "the happy album", the one where pop's most famed neurotic has found his greatest peace in life. Of course it's a truism only dribbling dullards think the man only doles out misery, but the fact remains only Morrissey could bring out an album resplendent with lines like

"My one true love is under the ground/And I'll never be anybody's hero now"

"It's the same old SOS/but with brand new broken fortunes/life is a pigsty/If you don't know this then what do you know?"

"Let's face it soon I will be dead/For my life I don't want anything/I just want to see the boy happy/Is that too much to ask?"

...and still have this termed his happy album. If this is the happy album, its not exactly ladling out the silly string and novelty hats.

Nonetheless, it's certainly true that the record is not only awash with tales of sensual human contact, but also references to wry fulfilment which compliment the allusions to despair. Amidst the self-doubt, Morrissey is, at least some of the time, being "paired off -pawed, till I can barely stand it". In that sense, it probably accords with life as lived by most listeners more than before, a fuller vista of the greater human condition. With "Life Is A Pigsty" -a great Moz epic to rival "Maudlin Street" -we see Morrissey yawning through "brand new broken fortunes" while still acknowledging the possibility of falling in love in his life's final hour.... amidst the sound of collapsing masonry. More complete, but with enough tortured melodrama to side-step drabness or normality.

The sense of liberation about the record enables him to look outward for the first time in over a decade too. Morrissey sings of other people as well as himself in this album, though as always they're still jagged reflections of what's within. "The Youngest Was The Most Loved" invokes a cherubic child who grows up a thuggish murderer, the lines underlining his lost innocence "a blush it rose if he had to say hello/a lop-sided grin, strained to keep the shyness in" striking and haunting. The children's choir joining the chorus "There is no such thing in life as normal" is as affecting an effect you'll hear this year. "The Father Who Must Be Killed" describes a girl knifing her abusive step-father to death, the rockier track also striking though not quite so catchy or effective this time.

Far more intriguing and strange is the album's first track:- "I Will See You In Far Off Places". Arabian strings crash furiously around a lyric with a devastating double-meaning:- that the thousands of Iraqis we see bombed in the impersonal abstract on our televisions will once again be met in the afterlife. "If the USA doesn't bomb you, I believe I will see you, looking to the camera, messing around and pulling faces". It's bizarre, unsettling, and his most startling opener since "Alsatian Cousin".

Closing track "At Last I Am Born" sounds like the triumphant militaristic finale of the grand musical of the protagonist's life, with all the bravado that entails. Outrageously arrogant hyperbole abounds with the comical "At last I am born - historians note" before revisiting again that he's not quite as much a "mess because of the flesh" as before. I was about to write the word "camp" about this joyous track, but I suddenly realise that if Morrissey's art has achieved anything, it is to take ally the elements of what is known as camp with a greater emotional weight to create something unique and unrepeatable. And even this, a real show-tune, and as Mardi-Gras as the man gets, still achieves something far greater, than, say Marc Almond could ever achieve. I say that not to denigrate Mr Almond at all, simply to say this is something else.

The album sounds beautiful, lush, luxuriant, expansive, sumptuous. Tony Visconti's production complements it expertly throughout, staving off the plastic edges which dogged You Are The Quarry at times. And in fact Ringleader is a progression from Quarry in most senses, more rounded, with less weaker moments. The bedazzling, unrepeatable inflections only his voice is capable of are in non-better form here. The moments of lyrical staleness where old court-cases are invoked are happily absent too.

The one way in which it doesn't surpass its predecessor is its lack of all-out poppy rocky classic singles, there is no "First of the Gang" or "Irish Blood" here. The guitar arrangements of long-time collaborator Alain Whyte and new man Jesse Tobias are always listenable and frequently sublime throughout, though the subdued, understated and mid-paced is the mainstay. I find this a bit of a shame, speaking as a rare fan who actually preferred Your Arsenal to Vauxhall and I and the subtler sound does lull a little around three quarters in. The charging glam stomp of the one rock-out number "I Just Want To See The Boy Happy" is a warm and welcome break in this torpor, but not quite enough for my taste.

And at times, the connection doesn't quite ignite. In "On The Streets I Ran" some of the finest lyrics on being trapped forever by your upbringing ("they never have them, but they always have you") and a slapstick approach to avoiding mortality ("take anyone! The stillborn, the newborn, the infirm take people from Pittsburgh Pensylvania just spare me!) are wasted on its weakest tune, while "To Me You Are A Work Of Art" is a torch-song too far, stretched to snapping-point. But the beautiful moments more than enough are enough to swamp these. The ultra-emotive epic of "Life Is A Pigsty" alone is enough to justify the asking price, and then some.

Contrarians note then, Morrissey's comeback continues, as difficult, arrogant, and subtly wonderful as ever. You know you want it. You don't? That the hatred of those who don't get it burns as strongly as ever should show the faithful that the peculiar and perverse light has still not gone out.

[First published on Spike Magazine, 2006] Back