Perhaps we should stop drawing parallels. Morrissey at 46 is not the Morrissey at 24 who yelped that "love is just a miserable lie
". Morrissey in 2006 is not the bereft eccentric who in 1987 claimed to be "unloveable". He used to hate the Queen; now he hates George W. Bush. Revulsion was at one point spurred on by meat-eaters; now, Canadians suffice. So why bother comparing? It is a different world; he's a different artist catering to a different crowd. Or so he'd like to believe. The Smiths will never escape Morrissey. Like it or not, he owes his fanbase to the Smiths. He owes his record deal to them, he owes every modicum of respect he hasn't managed to squander through cancelled concerts and television appearances, pigheadedness, misguided publicity stunts, mediocre music - he owes whatever he has left to his former band. When Noel Gallagher, or Andre 3000, or Damon Albarn, or Tom DeLonge cite Morrissey as a huge influence, they aren't talking about the artist who recorded Kill Uncle
. But regardless of why he is famous, or whether or not he deserves the cult following he has garnered, the fact remains that he does have a fanatical set of devotees who liken him to a saviour whose message far eclipses the musical realm - others just think he has compiled a capable pop catalogue. At the other end of the spectrum, there exists a surprising large gathering of anti-fans who arguably gain more pleasure from disparaging fey, ambiguous popstars like Morrissey than his disciples get from listening to his records. And here we are in 2006, with yet another lead single to love or loathe; another tour to enjoy or eschew; another album to revere or ridicule. Morrissey may figure himself the Ringleader of the Tormentors
, but he just as easily as a conductor of the three-ring circus that materialises with the release of every Moz album.
For all the chaos produced by those who care about inconsequential things like Morrissey releases, it can be rather easy to forget that there is even music at issue. In the case of the better solo releases (for the sake of brevity and honesty let us limit these to Viva Hate
and Your Arsenal
), the music is good enough so as not to even be a matter of debate. Sure, the songs are alright, now let's get back to wondering if he's gay or not
. In the case of the less stellar releases (and make no mistake, this category does not want for much), the music becomes part of the debate. If he wasn't such a pussy vegetarian maybe he'd be able to step up his game and write a song that only inspired me to gouge out
one of my ears
falls somewhere in the uncomfortable gulf between.
After a comeback year in 2004 as successful both popularly and critically as Morrissey could have hoped, in the summer of 2005 he took the confidence secured by their hungry reception and high-hiked it to Rome, leaving the expanse of Los Angeles behind. Rather than lazing in the modest resurgence brought on by the release of 2004's You are the Quarry
, Morrissey jumped right back on the recording wagon. Originally commissioning Killers' producer Jeff Saltzman, that route was quickly scraped in favour of glam rock alum Tony Visconti, famed Bowie producer. Unearthing a new writing partner in touring guitarist Jesse Tobias, Morrissey bunkered down with him and his established writing partners in Alain Whyte, Boz Boorer and Gary Day to create a new album. The desired result was an album very much in the same vein as You are the Quarry
. Such a product is more or less what came of the endeavour.
Though it is difficult to select highlights, there are a minimal number of songs which stand slightly above the median line, though not by much. The album opens with a Middle-Eastern tinged romp entitled "I Will See You in Far Off Places", reportedly so styled so as to coincide with the supposedly empathic lyrics aimed at victims of American aggression in Arabia, though this is doubtful. The song is pleasant but not deserving of the opening slot. It was likely placed their due to its "political" lyrics, disparaging the adopted country that served as the British singer's home for several years, seething "if the U.S.A. doesn't bomb you, I believe I will see you somewhere safe". Much like "America is Not the World", the opener to Quarry
, it was likely selected to start the album off with a "shocking" cut, and would also prevent such songs from getting lost in the shuffle if placed elsewhere.
This is followed by "Dear God Please Help Me", undoubtedly Moz's most lusty and blunt song to date. For an artist who, beyond the first year of his career with the Smiths, has always been overly vague (if such a thing is possible) and ambiguous, he achingly affirms that there are "explosive kegs between my legs", and later details, albeit briefly, a sexual encounter ("I'm spreading your legs, with mine in between"). Though this may indicate a shifting Moz, he remains no less eager to dodge specific questions regarding his sexuality in interviews. Not that he doesn't have the right. Musically, this song, while subdued, is one of the better ones on the record. Featuring string arrangements by legendary film composer Ennio Morricone and a children's choir (approached from a radically different angle than such Smiths classics as "Panic", mind), the song is a muted piece of beauty arguably lessened by Morrissey's lyrical contribution to the track.
The lead single "You Have Killed Me" is the most accessible and, in terms of pop standards, probably the best song on the album. With a pleasing melody and a sing-along chorus, it was a wise choice for lead single. Though this is an auto-pilot song in terms of the lyrics, and the music is nothing innovative, it is assembled well into a tight, succinct pop song.
"Life is a Pigsty" is was intended to be this album's magnum opus, and while it is enjoyable it is not as exciting, exploratory or progressive as Morrissey and his backers would like to make it seem. A seven minute run-time does not a classic make. The remaining songs are enjoyable and pleasant, much like the highlights, and there is quite honestly not much to set them apart. A nice melodic phrasing here, an imaginative couplet there, and that's about the extent of the praise.
Respecting the flaws, Ringleader of the Tormentors
is not an exciting nor an adventurous record. It is restrained and competent, but never seems to aspire for anything more. Ringleader
is a safe record, moving within familiar, previously charted territory which is sure to minimally content but not to stimulate or engage. Even the brightest tracks are habitual and revisit reliable themes, despite promotional attestations to the contrary. Perhaps most troubling is that there are no explicitly bad
songs on this album, making it more difficult to shrug off as a failed attempt in all forms. But it basks in complacency and makes no valiant effort to record even one experimental track or move into unexplored musical terrain. Even with inconsistent records like Southpaw Grammar
, the effort to grow artistically extenuated the flawed outcome. Here, there is no such mitigating factor. It is a safe album which in the end renders it a far less engaging listen than even failures like Maladjusted
, regardless of how backward the conclusion may seem.
Much related to the musical reservedness is Morrissey's own lack of lyrical enterprise. Once a man praised for his wit of pen and the ease at which his miserable whinging could be identified with, he has now emaciated into an common lyricist not worthy of mention unless it is to mourn the envied man that once was. In general Morrissey's lyrics are a highlight, both of praise and of debate, for fans and critics alike. Here, they crouch in a corner of insignificance, a plight especially painful considering the muted nature of the record in general. That lyrics penned by Morrissey cannot stand out in a sea of mere competency is a troubling thought indeed.
Ringleader of the Tormentors
is not a bad or overtly disappointing record, and I don't want to cast it as such. But it is the work of a drifting artist content with enabling the auto-pilot and letting the cards fall as they may. The result is at times pleasant and at times slightly below board, and generally falling somewhere right in between. It isn't a record that should send the Mozite disciplines into a frenzied state of ecstasy as though they had just seen their deity's face singed into a piece of French toast, but nor is it enough to make the detractors pump their fists in victory at the out-and-out failure of their nemesis. It is just a competent record from a competent artist whose past earns him far more credit than he merits for his effort.