Review Summary: Years is an accomplished album, but the somewhat lackluster energy his backup band produces and Morrissey’s own rather tiring brand of relentless cynicism make one wonder what could’ve been.
It’s rare to find a pop icon that has aged as gracefully as former Smiths frontman and sardonic crooner Morrissey. For a man approaching that great milestone of midlife crises, the quintessential English singer-songwriter has achieved a newer, more vital sense of purpose that has led to some of the most vibrant music of his solo career. The latest, Years of Refusal, continues this trend in force, led by typically acerbic lyrics and Morrissey’s classic vocals.
Opener “Something Is Squeezing My Skull” is a guitar rave-up that propels the album off to a quick start, a rapid-fire assault of galloping snares and squealing amplifier feedback. Morrissey bemoans the fact there is “no love in modern life” and desperately cries out “how long must I stay on this stuff?” while reciting a laundry list of anti-depressants, all while sounding like the most well mannered gent this side of the Thames. Years of Refusal is typically Morrissean in content, from jaded reflections on wasteful love in “That’s How People Grow Up” to the tragedy of a mother driven to suicide by debt and her vengeful son on “Mama, Lay Softly on the Riverbed.” Few artists can include “priggish” in their lyrics and not come off as a total buffoon, but it only adds to Morrissey’s over-the-pond charm.
Morrissey’s insistence on spouting on about depression, grief, and assorted farewells, however, conjures up the ghost of an eternally gray London and threaten to drag the album down into a morass of unrelenting negativity. Even coming from the former ringleader of that band of all-time depressives, the Smiths, Years is in danger of wallowing in too much pessimism. Morrissey is blunt in his rage on “It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore,” where he asks “did you really think we meant all those syrupy sentimental things that we said,” and comes off as a petulant self-pitying youngster on “Black Cloud,” where he cries out “I can choke myself to please you / and I can sink much lower than usual / but there’s nothing I can do to make you mine.” You would think nearly fifty years of life on this mortal coil would have given Morrissey some perspective, but even for a crafty veteran, love evidently still sucks.
The album is supported by Morrissey’s backing band, the aptly named Tormentors, who frame their leader’s suave vocals competently, if not exceptionally. Single “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris” makes up for its whiny lyrics (“no one wants my love / no one needs my love”) with a soaring melody and a catchy piano line that make Morrissey’s uninspired lyrics much more acceptable. The atmospheric ballad “You Were Good In Your Time” is another highlight, strings and a gentle accompaniment lending Morrissey’s vocals an extra weight of emotion before they abruptly cut off, followed by two minutes of disconnected noise that is as chilling as it is effective.
For the most part, however, the band performs capable renditions of the kind of guitar rock that made Morrissey famous in the first place, but aside from the aforementioned cuts, none are as revelatory as Morrissey’s still powerful vocals. The production is well done, and the arrangements are performed perfectly, but the whole affair almost has a workmanlike quality to it, as if the Tormentors are merely going through the motions. Morrissey’s voice remains the band’s most potent weapon, but even that needs a little inspirational help once in a while.
Morrissey ends the record with a maelstrom of rolling drums and lilting vocals in “I’m OK By Myself” and the realization that “after all these years I’m okay by myself,” but if there’s anything to be learned from Years of Refusal, it’s that Morrissey cannot succeed on his own. Years is an accomplished album, but the somewhat lackluster energy his backup band produces and Morrissey’s own rather tiring brand of relentless cynicism make one wonder what could’ve been. Someone get this guy a working relationship!