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CD Review

Morrissey's 'Years' is worth the wait

By James Reed
Globe Staff / February 16, 2009
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When Morrissey emerged from his cocoon in 2004, the seven-year hiatus since his last album suddenly felt worth the wait. "You Are the Quarry" wasn't a stunning return to form for the onetime Smiths frontman, but it was still a return, and that was enough for most diehard fans. You could almost read their minds: If we can't have the genius back in full splendor, at least we can admire him up close again.

Two years later, Morrissey released "Ringleader of the Tormentors," another good rock album with great moments - nothing exceptional but nothing inexcusable, either. A nagging thought began to seep in: When do we get another classic Morrissey album?

And now we have an answer: tomorrow. "Years of Refusal" is Morrissey's third album this decade, and it is easily his most vital and engaging and maybe even heartbreaking since 1992's "Your Arsenal." Morrissey isn't time-warping to the bad old days, though, nor is it a throwback to the Smiths.

"Years of Refusal" is remarkable for how reinvigorated Morrissey sounds, from the stridency of his vocals to the lean, muscular melodies completely in service of the man at the mike.

This being Morrissey, obviously he's wounded. But when Morrissey sings about love gone awry, it's hard to tell who's to blame. He tells you his - and usually only his - side of the story. On the new "All You Need Is Me," he gloats (or maybe gripes): "There's so much destruction all over the world/ And all you can do is complain about me." He plays the tortured victim, yet you get the feeling he's so insipidly antagonistic that he might actually deserve his fate.

This time around, though, you really start to feel sorry for the guy. He turns 50 this year and still isn't happy. (He does have a reputation to uphold). The threadbare honesty in some of his lyrics is devastating. "I'm throwing my arms around, around Paris/ Because only stone and steel accept my love," goes the chorus of "I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris."

There's no explaining the sudden renewed vigor. Morrissey is working with the same band that accompanied him on his previous two albums. Still, the playing is markedly different, much more crisp and driving, with light flourishes that never saturate the production. A subtle horn section wafts into "When I Last Spoke to Carol" and the distorted, digitized sounds on "Mama Lay Softly on the Riverbed" give it an unexpectedly gritty tension.

The centerpiece is "It's Not Your Birthday Anymore," which sounds like nothing Morrissey has attempted before. Beginning as a mellow meditation on forlorn love, it climaxes into a chorus raw and ruthless: "It's not your birthday anymore/ There's no need to be kind to you/ And the will to see you smile and be loved has now gone."

After 11 songs that suggest he's ready for love, Morrissey yanks the emergency brake with a contradictory closer. On the charging "I'm OK by Myself" - "Then came an arm around my shoulder/ Well, surely the hand holds a revolver" (oh, Moz) - he decides he doesn't need someone to love him, anyway. Well, he'll always have Paris.

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.

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