Essential New Music: Morrissey’s “Low In High School”

Steven Patrick Morrissey has become such a crank and a curmudgeon that it’s hard to tell when he’s being intentionally funny—we know he’s capable of being a world-class wit—and when he’s just sour and self-absorbed.

Take, for instance, “Spent The Day In Bed,” from Morrissey’s 11th post-Smiths solo album. The jaunty verse, set to a slightly funky electric-piano track, extols the happy luxury of spending some time in the sack, ending with, “I love my bed/And I recommend that you”—setting us up to expect him to advocate that we do the same. But the tone shifts, and he instead recommends that we “STOP WATCHING THE NEWS!” (all caps courtesy of the lyric sheet) “because the news contrives to frighten you/To make you feel small and alone/To make you feel that your mind isn’t your own.”

Maybe he’s complaining about fake news (opener “My Love, I’d Do Anything For You” deplores “the dead echelon’s mainstream media”). Or maybe he’s voicing a character (although spending the day in bed seems like a very Moz thing to do). But to ostrich-down on his mattress and blame the media instead of the events in the world seems at best desperately narcissistic and at worst irresponsible.

That personal/political dialectic repeats. A song about the Arab Spring returns to the declaration, “I just want my face in your lap” (“In Your Lap”). Another about how “Presidents come, presidents go/And oooh, the damage they do!” is also about how, as its title says, “all the young people must fall in love.” (That one is set to a fun, thumping handclap track.)

The songs range widely over the literal map, from Tel Aviv to Venezuela to Israel. It’s an album full of politics, religion and war, and of sex and self-interest. The arrangements range, too, from the sparse and acoustic “I Bury The Living” on one end to the bombastic, orchestral “My Love, I’d Do Anything For You” on the other. Throughout, Morrissey, who’s had throat and other health problems in recent years, sings in his inimitable style: commanding and dramatic, nuanced and confident.

Even when you can’t quite tell whether you want to laugh with or at Morrissey’s heavy-handed proclamations, they’re provocative, and that’s worth a lot.

—Steve Klinge