Allaying any fears that middle age and public inactivity have defanged him, Morrissey kicks off his first album of the 21st century with "America Is Not the World" and its barbed opening salvo, "America, your head's too big because your belly's too big." Then he assails the hypocrisy of a nation that calls itself a land of opportunity, though "the President is never black, female, or gay."
Just as it seems as if this disenchanted Englishman -- who now lives in Los Angeles -- is setting himself up to get Dixie Chicked, he winds up the song with "I love you, I love you." It's classic Morrissey, all knotted ambivalence and acidic lyrics served on a bed of chiming, trembling guitars. It's also a fine introduction to "You Are the Quarry," the former Smiths frontman's most satisfying solo effort since 1994's "Vauxhall and I." Though he has toured occasionally -- including an energetic performance at Avalon in 2000 -- Morrissey hasn't put out a collection of new material since 1997's poorly received "Maladjusted." And, for several of those years, he even twisted about without a record contract.
Produced by Jerry Finn, who has worked with pop-punk groups blink-182, Green Day, and AFI, this album has been buffed to a glossy sheen, yet Morrissey could hardly be accused of acquiescing to contemporary tastes. There aren't many current pop songs like the dreamy "I Have Forgiven Jesus," in which he decries being given "so much love/ in a loveless world/ when there is no one I can turn to/ to unlock all this love." The same could be said for the politically minded first single, "Irish Blood, English Heart," with its very British references to Oliver Cromwell, the Labour Party, and the Tories, which may leave some American listeners scratching their heads, or at least clicking on an online encyclopedia.
Of course, none of this should matter since it's a crackling good song, with a chorus propelled by fat, snarling guitars, and Moz in full roar. He'll turn 45 Saturday, but his voice -- pleading, defiant, grand -- is in wonderful shape. "Come Back to Camden" is as delicate a ballad as Morrissey has ever recorded, and as the song crescendos, his falsetto is true, pure, and moving.
There are some up-tempo and midtempo rockers here, but this is an album that could almost be classified as easy listening. There aren't many melodies here that would sound out of place on a Dido record. Naturally, the gentle music contrasts with his often stinging lyrics, mostly co-written with his longtime guitarists Alain Whyte and Boz Boorer. Everyone is a target, from know-nothing critics to mendacious politicians on both sides of the Atlantic.
Love remains a vexing, elusive thing -- they're still writing songs of love, but not for Moz. "The World Is Full of Crashing Bores" is a rush of bitter sentiments about the dullards, particularly pop stars, "so scared to show intelligence it might smear their lovely career," but it also captures his evergreen longing for someone to "take me in your arms and love me."
The album ends with the melodramatic grandeur of "You Know I Couldn't Last." Tart and triumphant, Morrissey snipes at "the critics who can't break you, unwittingly they make you." By the end of "You Are the Quarry," it's clear that Morrissey has not only found a way to last, but has managed, two decades into his career, to craft a surprisingly potent album filled with anger, self-deprecating humor, and melancholy. In his 20s, the singer could come across as too forlorn for his years, but now his observations come from the sadder-but-wiser perch of middle age. The lacerating wit is still there, but now there's the added weight of weary knowledge and experience. Yes, he's still a curmudgeon, but Steven Patrick Morrissey has finally earned his attitude.