Posted by: Nick Walters | February 28, 2009

Morrissey: Years Of Refusal

Tammy not impressed

What the hell is going on with that cover?! It’s not Morrissey’s own child, whatever he may have said in interviews; sleevenotes reveal the truth (it’s the son of a crew member). Still, it’s a striking image, and despite the many things that can be read into it, I reckon it’s just Moz in Daily Mail-baiting shock mode. It’s certainly a memorable image, though the cat doesn’t look impressed. Inside the CD booklet is a photo of the band looking young and thin and fit (even Boz, sucking his gut in) and behind the CD is a painting of some old fruit (make of that what you will). The booklet is printed on that horrible matt cardboardy stuff which stinks.

The album itself is solid, thunderous, if sometimes lumpen musically, whilst lyrically Morrissey has arrived at a resigned, contented bitterness. He seems more miserable than he was on Ringleader of the Tormentors, and yet paradoxically somehow happier; more accepting of himself. “When will you accept yourself?” he asked in 1983… well, it took 26 years but it seems now he has. He is who he is, and bollocks to anyone who still vainly tries to change him. There are three songs which state this: Something Is Squeezing My Skull, That’s Why People Grow Up, and, obviously, I’m OK By Myself. Morrissey doesn’t waste time trying to convert floating voters – you’re either on board, or not, and he cares not which way you jump.

I have heard this album criticised for its lack of humour, but the opening track is called Something Is Squeezing My Skull, for God’s sake, and contains the line:

    The motion of taxis excites me when you peel it back and bite me

Which is up there with “there are explosive kegs between my legs” in the league of hilarious Morrissey lyrics which conjure up an image you may not necessarily want inside your head.

There is humour elsewhere, however black. In One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell, he sings, “when I die, I WANT to go to hell”, with relish, as if he means it. In the same song he warns that as “time grips you slyly in its spell… the smiling children tell you that you smell.” The lines about being crippled in a car crash being worse than “never being someone’s sweetie” in That’s How People Grow Up are hilariously OTT and twisted. All the jokes on this album are about ageing, death and loneliness – yes, the former Moz wit may not be present, but in its place is a devil-may-care gallows humour which strikes a chord with me and goes well with the bluster and bombast of the music.

Which is there in spades with opening track Something Is Squeezing My Skull, an exhilarating blast of a song climaxing in an astonishing repeated refrain of “don’t gimme any more!”, Moz triumphantly losing the plot as drums barrel around him like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It’s the best ever opening track to a Morrissey album.

Drums are again much in evidence on the following Mama Lay Softly On The Riverbed, a plodding dirge (meant positively – I like dirges) which features a guitar solo so distorted it sounds like a Dalek being roughly anally violated by a Cyberman. Black Cloud is an oddity – it features Mr Hi! Ho! Silver Lining Jeff Beck, and the title recalls Winston Churchill’s description of depression as the “black dog”, but the whole thing seems slight, with Moz’s moans about unrequited love offering nowt new. Though there is the chilling line, “I can chase you and I can catch you but there is nothing I can do to make you mine”, which are the words of a stalker, or a rapist (he’ll return to such disturbing themes later on).

I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris is lovely, of course, but feels out of place here. It’s a mid-range Morrissey single, saved by his gorgeous vocals. He is in fine voice throughout the whole album, in fact he has never sounded better. Former single All You Want Is Me follows, it’s more suited to the brash and dirty feel of the album than its predecessor. It contains Morrissey’s savage, funny response to the question of what he will be when he grows up: “Me? NOTHING!”

When Last I Spoke To Carol (typically Morrissey – it couldn’t be When I Last Spoke To Carol, could it?) follows, and is quite a fun track despite the heavy theme of suicide. A catchy 12-string guitar riff recurs throughout, thrown into sharp relief against the dense, rumbling bass and drums. There’s an absolutely mad instrumental break which features horns, a cock crowing and dogs barking – another moment of humour on this allegedly humourless disc.

“Side 2” (yes, I still think in those terms) kicks off with That’s How People Grow Up, another old single, which I hated on release, but it makes more sense on Years Of Refusal. Its bitterness, its self parody, that line about the car crash – it all makes sense in the context of the album. One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell, critcised as the weakest track, is certainly bit naff lyrically (smiling children aside) but features a lovely rolling bass riff, and is too short by a minute to these ears.

Then we get to the heart of the album. It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore has been hailed as the classic Moz track on Years of Refusal, and I cannot disagree. His vocal performance here is nothing short of astonishing. Lyrically, the idea of sneeringly telling someone it’s not their birthday so one doesn’t have to be nice to them anymore is a good conceit (and harks back to Unhappy Birthday off the last Smiths album – I wonder if the song is about the same person – I wouldn’t like to be them if it is!). But the lines “your voice it may say No, but the heart has a will of its own” and “it cannot be given so it must be taken” are once again reminiscent of what a stalker or rapist might say. Moz is not afraid to lay himself open to these unsettling interpretations. The the subject of the song is clearly a former (maybe fictional) lover and maybe the same person as the subject of Black Cloud, and the song as a whole is an excellent if disturbing portrait of obsession. Whether or not it’s autobiographical is moot – Moz could be occupying a persona here, however hearfelt the song sounds. And let’s not forget he’s written songs from the viewpoint of paedophiles, football hooligains and murderers before, so perhaps best not read too much into it. Nonetheless, it is a fantastic song.

You Were Good In Your Time follows – a paean to an old star which recalls Papa Jack from Maladjusted. The self-referential irony here is on overload – is Moz commenting on those who think he is past his best? Is he singing from the point of view of a fan? Or is this young Moz addressing a fading future Moz? Whatever, it’s a touching song, the singer acknowledging how much the dying star has helped him. It’s a gentle ballad, the only quiet spot on the album, but it ends disturbingly. Abruptly after Morrissey asks “are you aware… that you have just died?” there are two minutes of weird pulsating throbblings like something out of Eraserhead. Sounds bollocks, but it is a shock, especially on first listen, and makes you think uncomfortably about your own demise.

Years of Refusal has been criticised for not ending at this point, and daring to have two more songs back in the more trad rock mode of the rest of the album, but I think it’s necessary, it seems to complete a journey started with Something Is Squeezing My Skull. Sorry Doesn’t Help is okay, slightly reminiscent of I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me from Viva Hate, and if the weak link on the album at least provides a contrast to the preceding track.

I’m OK By Myself, as I have mentioned above, is one of the three tracks which embody the theme of the album, so it is only fitting that this song closes proceedings. It’s an excellent, fast-paced rocker, with a brilliant bassline and Moz denying that he needs anyone’s help, as he is perfectly fine by himself, reconciled to the fact of his existence; he has finally accepted himself. This can be seen as tragic, coming after the loved-up Moz of Ringleader, but I think it’s triumphant. Morrissey is now strong enough to stand on his own and not need anyone else. Surely that’s healthier than relying on other people for one’s mental well-being?

So there you have it. A strong album, easily as good as the previous two, from an artist at the top of his game. He has spoken of retiring in the near-ish future; he cannot imagine touring at 55 or 60, but on this showing, he has at least another album in him. Maybe not as full-on next time, for, as he grows old with dignity, perhaps Years of Refusal is the last chance Morrissey has to rock out. And as such it is a triumph.

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Responses

  1. I’ve never really gotten to grips with Morrissey or The Smiths. It’s not that I actually dislike him, like I do with say U2, more that I don’t quite understand what’s going on there. My theory is that I missed out on listening to The Smiths in my teenage years and somehow will be forever not a Morrissey fan.

    Still that is a scary CD cover. Does it come with free cat?

  2. The teenage thing is probably key to Moz fandom. The Smiths get you with How Soon Is Now? which is the ultimate teen angst song: “There’s a club if you’d like to go / You could meet somebody who really loves you / So you go and you stand on your own / And you leave on your own / And you go home and you cry and you want to die.” Pretty much sums up how crap nightclubs are, actually, at ANY age! But once you’re over your teen angst (I’m still waiting) you realise how fucking great a guitarist Johnny Marr is (or was then), and, actually, how hilarious Morrissey’s lyrics actually are. Yes, some of his songs ARE truly miserable and very dark (Asleep, for example, is a terrifying portrait of suicide). But for me Morrissey sums up what life is really like: funny, awkward, sad, dramatic, tedious, exciting and dull – often all at once. In Moz, all human life is there.

  3. Found your blog while googling Jeff Wode, thought I’d have a read of this, and I have to say I agree almost entirely
    I’m a huge Morrissey fan, and just wanted to say that this is one of the best reviews that I’ve read of the Album and of Morrissey himself.

  4. Laura – thanks!

    What made you google Jeff Wode?!


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