April 9, 2009

Test Spin: Morrissey

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When a legend as big as Morrissey releases a new album, the inevitable comparison is to the artist’s older work: the new stuff can as easily seem revelatory as sullying. Morrissey’s newest, however, is not quite either. To say that Years of Refusal manages to uphold the standard he’s set previously in his career is anything but faint praise. It’s an album that may win few new converts, but will definitely please the faithful.
In fact, the album synthesizes a breadth of influences that range Morrissey’s development from underground punk rocker to mainstream lounge act. “When Last I Spoke to Carol” has a strong inflection of mariachi, the upbeat horn section providing a surprisingly apt counterpoint to Morrissey’s morose reflections about a friend who’s “hung on … edged along the narrow ledge,” as if her life were just a preparation for an inevitable suicide; the track ends with bleak gusts of wind.
“You Were Good in Your Time” is pure Sinatra-esque crooning. “All You Need is Me,” on the other hand, thrashes and growls with an undercurrent of West Coast pop punk while Morrissey gloats about a whiney ex who can’t get over him. The song that has grown on me the most, though, is “It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore,” a long rock ballad in which Moz swoons into falsetto while taking back compliments, slows down to whisper about “the love I am giving to you right here and right now / on the floor” to accompanying tinkling synth, then erupts into the refrain, “Did you think we meant / all those syrupy sentimental / things we said yesterday?”
If the mood of the album indicates Morrissey has mellowed with age, the lyrics are more fraught than ever. While not every track is instantly canonical, Morrissey — at almost fifty — has made an inconsolable negative theology out of his own nostalgia, which yet refuses thralldom to its own legendary past.