Morrissey - Ringleader Of The Tormentors

Bill Cummings 03/04/2006

Rating: 4/5

Morrissey returns from Italy with a new album, two years on from his critically and commercially acclaimed album You Are The Quarry. An album that transported him back from the USA and being dropped back into the arms of the music press, and the fans that had always believed in him. YATQ was on the whole a good album, however in retrospect it did strike some bum notes; it was disjointed in parts, and contained too much bile about court cases pass: so why the public adoration then? It probably had something to do with another rise in the popularity of the Smiths. In the 80s they were regarded by many as a cult indie band, who never really crossed over into mass appeal the way your Franz or Kaisers of today do. So it felt as if Morrissey returned to finally receive the credit that the Smiths as a band were long overdue, and the recognition he deserved as a lyricist and singer.

Morrissey the person is a riddle, an enigma, and an icon - and he knows it. How could a man who sung about such sorrow keep the listener at such arms length, for so long? How could a man who has been a cult hero for over twenty years keep his sexuality a mystery?

The answer probably lies in his ability to construct his own myth: whilst many in the 80s used machismo, his lyrics with the Smiths specialised in the introspective and the tender, finding the poetic in the tragic, the beauty in melancholia, hardly traditional mainstream male traits of that decade. Morrissey was able to construct lyrics that sung of his pain, and his longing yet left enough stubborn ambiguity within the words as to keep the listener guessing. Indeed in interviews he bragged of his celibacy, his love of early nights and his ability to disappear into the worlds of Wilde, Patti Smith and the New York Dolls.

Now we come to “Ringleader of the Tormentors”, a title that hints at his own torment but also his place as an icon of doomed romanticism. The man who created the sound track to indie kids' teenage life, is now older, wiser and seemingly more comfortable in his own skin.

Enlisting the help of Tony Visconti (Trex, Bowie) and Marccone to create an album with a definite “sound”, mixing lavish yet tasteful orchestration with the clanging 70s fuzz of new guitarist and song writing partner Jesse Tobias, who links up well with Moz regulars Boz Boorer, while Alain Whyte previous main guitarist and co songwriter is relegated to a supporting role. On repeated listens it's musically a thing of magisterial beauty, uncoiling itself into your consciousness and allowing Morrissey new scope for his ever brilliant vocals. Indeed often his vocals are placed an octave above his normal pitch allowing him to croon above cinematic windscreen ballads, and Trex inspired rockers. Take opener 'I have seen you in far off places': layers of textured Led Zep-esque oriental instrumentation, are supplemented by buzzing guitars before Morrissey's Bush baiting vocal wasps into view “If your god bestows protection upon you/And if the USA doesn't bomb you/I believe I will see you somewhere safe.”

Intricate lyrical motifs are present throughout ROTT. Firstly there's the startling discovery of Morrissey as sexual animal, when he sings “I entered nothing and nothing entered me/'Til you came with the key” on lead single “You have killed me”. It's a kind of startling admission one would never expect from Mozzer's lips, but it's still couched in the kind of ambiguity and indecision that he's wrestled with before. But more graphic is to come during the ornately gorgeous Marccone orchestrated ballad “Dear God, Please Help me”, a study upon Morrissey's constant battle with his sexual desires: “so sick and tired of doing the right thing”, he juxtaposes the sensuous “I am walking through Rome with my heart on a String” with initially clanging, faintly tongue in cheek sexual imagery of “'There are explosive kegs/Between My Legs.” He goes on “Now I'm spreading your legs with mine in-between” before declaring in the songs finale “that the heart is free”. At last it's a declaration: Morrissey seems to have found some kind of love.

But love is never straightforward for old Moz, the jagged guitars and Italian references of “You have Killed me” are underpinned by the idea that love is not all hearts and flowers but for most of us, its accompanied by indecision and pain. Indeed on the almost operatic elegiac balladry of “You are a work of art” he sings in a voice that's part Orbison, part Scott Walker “To me you are a work of art/ And I would give you my heart” before tellingly twisting the narrative back to himself with the kiss off “Thats if I had one.”

Another motif running throughout the heart of this album is death, whether it's Morrissey dealing with his own mortality, or the murder of characters that he has sculpted. First is the standout “The Youngest was the most loved” that delivers clanging 70s glam guitars and a swift emotive rush, a tale of a child who “turned into a killer” but the chorus line is the masterstroke “there is no such thing in life as normal” is backed by a queasy children's choir, faintly reminiscent of the backing upon the Smiths' “Bigmouth Strikes Again." It adds ironic layers to a chorus that could just as much be about Morrissey himself as his subject. In the final bars he wheels away into a typical fete of Morrissey yodelling above pianos, violins and the kitchen sink: just marvellous.

There are a few lesser lights here though “In the Future when all's well” takes the new positive Morrissey lyricism to a slightly too simplistic extreme, indeed this isn't helped by a backing that sounds distinctly like Morrissey by numbers. While the authoritarian revolt of “The Father who must be killed” starts to wear after a while with its overly dense lyricism and almost dirgy rhythm.

But there's a redemptive air about ROTT too, an awareness that time is short. Indeed the lovelorn crooning falsettos of “I'll never be anybody's hero” are steeped in Morrissey's sense of his own mortality “I am a ghost and as far as I know I haven't even died” and “My one true love is under the ground.” While “On the streets I ran” is all about history, Manchester streets “of wet black holes/On roads you can never know”. Morrissey's vocal is almost out of key, out of the rhythm: “oh forgive me on the streets that I ran” he casually throws off a hint at his time with the Smiths: “turned sickness into unpopular song” and the “You can never have them but they can have you/Until the day that you croak” He opines in almost comical fashion “Take anyone/ the still born/ the new born/ The inform/Take anyone/Take people from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, just spare me!” This is Morrissey in new self-confident mode, finally with a purpose, a reason to go on.

The finale “At Last I am Born” is almost uplifting in its rebirth, with its pompy strings and stompy military march, vocals that sum it up “I used to feel repressed because of the flesh but at last I am born!” are flicked off, ending with Morrissey's ironic exclamations “Historians take note!!At last I am born!”

The album's centre piece “Life is a Pigsty” is almost typical Moz: a reaffirmation to himself as much as us. Musically it is reminiscent of both the melancholia of “I know it's over” and the clawing ode to loneliness “Last night I dreamt that somebody loved me.” Beginning with a set of simple strummed chords, the sound of rain beats down upon the tinkling keys before Moz appears booming in from the outside with “It's the same old SoS but with brand new broken fortunes/I'm the same underneath.” before the song lurches into a crashing crescendo. It's a melancholic epic, beautifully uniting all of the albums motifs in the dying embers of its glorious refrains “Even now in the final hour of my life/I'm falling in love again.”

Indeed Morrissey may have found love and lost it? He may be choosing to express himself in a more straightforward manner (some older fans will be put off), he may be backed by more luscious instrumentation (this isn't a Smiths album), but he cannot run away from who he is. Those Manchester streets won't let him, he may have been to far off places: Rome, LA but at his heart he is a tragic romantic poet, of the working class north, one of the truly great musical voices of the last twenty years. The Ringleader is back to bring intelligent pop to the masses, with one of his best solo albums yet.