MORRISSEY IS NOT OBAMA. In America, his 26-year pop-star campaign has always been uphill. His one campaign promise—”Telling you all that you never wanted to know/ Showing you what didn’t want shown”— means he’s never been a media darling here. Yet that underdog status won him a genuine grassroots fanbase as passionate (if less vocal than) as Dylan’s, Springsteen’s, Bono’s—or Obama’s. Morrissey fans looking for “Pop You Can Believe In” will convene at his Webster Hall and Carnegie Hall concerts this week.
When Morrissey sang “America Is Not The World” in 2004, he begged political comparison and the provocation in Morrissey’s stump speeches/song-catalog make this leg of his Years of Refusal tour significant. It’s what keeps the new album inexhaustibly fresh. Making “Pop You Can Believe In” requires an intervention in the traditional ways of pop music culture. As always, Morrissey challenges the sentiments pop listeners are used to hearing. Songs like “You’re the One For Me, Fatty,” “The National Front Disco” and “The Father Who Must Be Killed” depart from the glib, comfortable sarcasm that typifies youth music, offering real political and social challenge. Yet, at age 50, Morrissey invigorates this heretical approach to pop with the splendor and verve of youthful musical expression.
Thus the odd pose on Years of Refusal’s cover: Morrissey dandling an infant—clearly not his own—and both sporting jewel appliqué-birthmarks. Politicians kiss babies’ asses, pop stars often fight paternity suits. But famously, puckishly “celibate” Morrissey claims his pop legacy with wittier agitprop. Like the objects held on past album covers, You Are the Quarry (machine gun), Ringleader of the Tormentors (violin), that Refusal baby is a weapon—a mischievous sign of pop music’s radical potential.
Morrissey made it possible to believe that pop music could be changed for the better by taking oppositional stances to romantic clichés (The Smiths’ angry “Unhappy Birthday” now morphed into the grand, sober realization “It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore”) and by contesting social commonplaces (“How Soon Is Now” pondered desire; “Black Cloud” now examines devotion). Listeners who felt betrayed by pop’s promised romance and utopia could vote for the truth in Morrissey’s extravagantly sung remonstrations. No way such pop apostasy could gather enough mass appeal to become a movement; Morrissey’s songs inspire more soul-reflection than booty bumping. The trenchant, ironic “All You Need Is Me” inspires a pumping heart as much as a pumping fist.
Still, Years of Refusal could have been titled “Revolution.” It’s Morrissey’s most punk album yet—short, rambunctious compositions take angles on social distress and thwarted desire. The American Idol era ignores those feelings that alienate us from others or submerges them in niche-marketed sap. Its ultimate betrayal can also be found in calculated rock “rebellion” like bad-mannered Lily Allen’s. She represents the opposite of “Pop You Can Believe In” when her song “Fuck You” caters to the self-congratulatory prejudices of fatuous hipsters. Allen’s vulgar pledge to popular stances (pro-gay marriage, anti-Bush) coddles listeners in groupthink. Her bouncy cussing gives the illusion of insolence, but the song’s pretend political relevance makes it nauseatingly cute.
Morrissey’s “Sorry Doesn’t Help” offers a light-stepping, hardcharging answer to Allen’s bubble-gum impudence. He observes the modern habit of insincere apologies—frequently coerced by the media to bring maladictors back in line without ever admitting its own complicity or weakness. Morrissey goes farther than to simply recognize social injury; he examines the trap of false contrition that sours common relations—a deeper problem than an unfashionable political position. Allen’s simple-minded “Fuck You” (praised by the panderers of what used to be known as “alternative” media) is for listeners who don’t want to grow up and recognize the moral complexity that “Sorry Doesn’t Help” outlines.
In the offhand lament, “Sorry won’t bring my teen years back to me,” Morrissey invokes the folly of youthful misdeeds. But this fillip also slyly forces the wisdom of maturity onto a pop ditty. Placing the revolution-of-compassion inside a pop single, Morrissey initiated a new campaign strategy—releasing tracks prior to the album’s drop. Last Spring’s “That’s How People Grow Up” placed a Smiths-like summary of youth experience into the chaos of iTunes selections—a provocation as unconventional as Obama’s internet fundraising. To buy the single meant choosing to refute American Idol platitudes, opting for meditation over escapism. Pop music hasn’t seen such a confrontational offer since the peak years of rap or punk, and that’s the key to Years of Refusal.
The Boz Boorer–led band, adequate as ever, achieve punk-like fervor. Different from the hard-rock excursions of Southpaw Grammar (1996)—where extended, garage-style thrashings sought a guitar-centered defiance—Years of Refusal resurrects punk efficacy and snap. Think of a Buzzcocks or X-Ray Spex cover band to appreciate how Morrissey makes the most of his band’s limitations. Producer Jerry Finn sought a live sound in which Morrissey’s wails show raw spontaneity—and the soulfulness of a true singer. Clearly, Morrissey never got his due as a descendant of punk.
Naysaying rock traditionalists don’t understand how Morrissey’s most dire expressions stimulate listeners, turns them emotionally active, not mere mopers—surely the effect Obama intended for his constituents. Tracks like “Black Cloud” seem to end just as they’re beginning, uncannily reviving punk’s brusque, rousing aesthetic. Refusing to be suckered by sentimentality gives Morrissey strength. The new album’s thrust is almost steroidal. It flexes the power of choice (“Mama Lay Down By The River”), endurance (“You Were Good In Your Time”), motivation (“All You Need Is Me”) and encouragement (“I’m OK By Myself”). Each pithy song a lesson on moral living (“One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell”),which is why I previously likened each track to the story in André Téchiné’s The Girl on the Train. In lines like “I can choke myself to please you/ And I can sink much lower than usual,” Morrissey dramatizes our common sensitivity to life’s perplexities.
Listen to the dazzling first track, “Something Is Squeezing My Skull.” Morrissey repudiates contemporary self-medicating rituals as well as sex-drugs-and-rock ’n’ roll clichés. His uncanny image of manic-depressive angst roils into the kind of absolute resistance Johnny Rotten understood but that Morrissey himself makes elegant (“You swore you would not gimme anymore!”). It creates strength in the sound of struggle. Carnegie Hall won’t be a political rally; it’ll be a wake-up call.
Morrissey plays Webster Hall March 25 &Carnegie Hall March 26.