Heaven knows he’s happier now
A couple of years ago, NME took tea with Morrissey amid the old-school glamour of the Dorchester Hotel for his first interview with this magazine in 12 years. Noting that his last album ‘You Are The Quarry’ still contained several laments about how impossible it was for him to find love (or even a shag), Morrissey confirmed that while love went “in and out” of his life, “it doesn’t last. I mean,” he asked us, “is it lasting in your life?” Admitting that while thus far it hadn’t been but we still held out hope, Morrissey hissed, “How old are you? 29? Forget it. Buy yourself a nice budgie.”
Yet ‘Ringleader Of The Tormentors’ is eloquent proof, that, to quote the title of Private Eye’s romance novel piss-take about Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, you’re Never Too Old. At least six of the album’s 12 tracks strongly indicate that Morrissey has found love in the city in which they were recorded – Rome. The almost embarrassingly frank ‘Dear God, Please Help Me’ begins with Morrissey wandering the eternal city before confessing “there are exploding kegs/Between my legs”, and going on to announce, “Now I’m spreading your legs/With mine in between”. Oh, vicar! Yet this being Morrissey, it turns out that he’s appealing for help from the Almighty because, like him, God’s not likely to have had much experience of the nuts and bolts of lurve. Then there’s ‘You Have Killed Me’, in which Morrissey declares, “I entered nothing and nothing entered me/’Til you came with the key”. Final track ‘At Last I Am Born’ waltzes resolutely to its lyrical crux – that “I once was a mess/Of guilt because of the flesh/It’s remarkable what you can learn/Once you are born, born, born”.
So how does the new, sexed-up Mozzer actually sound? Like the old one, it’s true – but with considerably more vigour. First, the weedy strings and ticking drum machines of ‘You Are The Quarry’ have been thrown out in favour of a full-on sonic assault by legendary glam-rock producer Tony Visconti. Opening track ‘I Will See You In Far Off Places’ whips up a sandstorm of exotically wailing guitars, presumably to evoke the war in Iraq (which inspired the lyrics). ‘The Youngest Was The Most Loved’ and ‘The Father Who Must Be Killed’, two songs about traumatised childhoods, feature chanting choirs of Italian kids (on ‘Youngest…’ singing, “There is no such thing as normal”, a perennial Morrissey rallying cry). The drama is cranked up to almost operatic levels on two Moz epics. Arranged by Ennio Morricone (who did the music for Spaghetti Westerns like The Good, The Bad And The Ugly), ‘Dear God, Please Help Me’ involves thundering timpani, bells, strings and a swelling church organ, yet possesses the kind of forceful beauty which prevents it from being kitsch. ‘Life Is A Pigsty’, meanwhile, uses epic ’80s synths, thunderstorm sound effects and what sounds like cannon fire to drive home the message that life may indeed be a pigsty, but “in the final hour of my life/I’m falling in love again”.
These are the key tracks; the ones which push the Morrissey sound and which hit home the hardest. Elsewhere, Moz retreats into the patent jangly pop which seems to be his ‘default’ setting (although nothing descends to the ‘will this do?’ levels of his disastrous 1997 album ‘Maladjusted’). Even here there are special moments from the effortless, gliding middle section of ‘In The Future When All’s Well’ to the fluttering melody line of ‘I’ll Never Be Anybody’s Hero Now’. ‘I Just Want To See The Boy Happy’ has musical ambitions as modest as its title, but only the totally unmemorable ‘On The Streets I Ran’ should have been consigned to a B-side (or bin).Lyrically, Morrissey is dramatically sincere rather than flip or funny, with a slight sprinkling of obscure cultural references to tease and intrigue long-term Moz watchers. In ‘You Have Killed Me’, Moz self-identifies the great Italian directors Pasolini and Visconti – both of whom, we might add, were gay and made films about the destructiveness of human sexuality (Pasolini was actually murdered by a rent boy). In ‘At Last I Am Born’, Moz describes his passage through life as being “From difficult child to spectral hand to Claude Brasseur” – though why he’s ended up as a French bobsleigh racer-turned-actor must remain, for now, obscure. What’s clear is that ‘Ringleader Of The Tormentors’ sees Morrissey not only in wonderful voice, but more flamboyant and alive than at any time in his solo career. Like NME, he won’t be darkening a pet shop’s door to buy a budgie any time soon. Never too old, indeed.