Some say our culture is unhealthily obsessed with youth. I’m not sure if this is true. But then again, I’m a young person who’s been accused of having an old soul (most recently: an acquaintance, instructed to choose a candy that best fit my personality, offered a box of Good ’n’ Plentys). So I suppose my perspective on the issue is somehow warped.
In any event, it’s tough to evaluate the work of Mr. Steven Patrick Morrissey without noting two things: (1) He was young once, and (2) He’s not young anymore. Morrissey doesn’t seem terribly sensitive about his advancing years — an attitude thoroughly (and rather unsubtly) documented on the cover of his latest album, “Years of Refusal.” Beneath the jewel case, he poses against a charcoal drop cloth, hair still nobly voluminous (if a bit gray at the temples), standing smartly at attention. He holds a baby, positively glowing with ruddy vigor, in the crook of his right arm. Each of them has a tattoo: He has a caterpillar on his arm; she has a butterfly on her forehead.
Symbolism of time’s paradoxical passage aside — for better, for worse — the typical problems of the Aging Icon are little in evidence here and, thankfully, neither are the associated clichés. Morrissey is neither a Shadow of His Old Self, nor an Embarrassment to His Fans, nor a Squanderer of His Legacy. This is a good thing, and, from the patronizing perspective of this youthful reviewer, an accomplishment in itself.
That said, this record has problems of an entirely different order. It’s that voice of his. One might expect it to have grown reedy and thin, but it’s as noble a baritone as ever. Except it’s everywhere and big, big, big — oppressively so.
It’s still a limber instrument — the opener, “Something is Squeezing My Skull,” closes with a solid minute of the phrase, “Don’t give me any more,” rendered in variations on a compressed, frenzied yodel. Impressive? Yes, but also emblematic of the faulty vocal-instrumental logic that plagues this record. The success of a Morrissey song has always relied on the give-and-take between those two elements — not so much counterpoint, but a vigorous game of tag (tagbacks allowed). On “Refusal,” Morrissey’s dulcet tones threaten to either overwhelm the instrumentation or, perhaps worse, to make it seem an afterthought.
This might not be a problem if Morrissey were a singularly Great Voice, a Pavarotti or an Al Green. But Morrissey is, well, Morrissey — equal parts voice, attitude, sensibility.
Here, the voice simply overwhelms, getting no more than a second’s pause from time zero. On “Mama Lay Softly On The Riverbed,” for example, the vocals are only interrupted by a messy, noisy bridge. With lyrics like “Bailiffs with bad breath/ I’ll slit their throats for you/ Life is nothing much to lose,” breathing room (for him, for us) is essential, though unavailable.
“One Goodbye Will Be Farewell” comes heartbreakingly close to vocal-instrumental equilibrium. Its beginning, athletic percussion overlaid with sketchy guitar, has a definite vigor to it, but once Morrissey gets to the line “I have been thinking,” he loses himself in his thoughts, seemingly forgetting about important things, like rhythm. It’s not alone in its near success: The first 45 seconds of “It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore” show unusual promise, recalling mid-’90s New Order (gleaming, polished, plodding vocals against a barely-there percussive background). Soon afterward, however, the bombastic bloat sets in fast.
Though there are occasional moments of experimental distraction — “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris” has both motorcycle noises and a hook ripped from Liz Phair’s “Never Said,” while a particularly cinematic mariachi band lends novelty to “When Last I Spoke to Carol” — the great tragedy of this record is that it overwhelms in the most bland, forgettable way possible. Everything is everywhere, and for that reason, nothing is memorable.
Thankfully, it’s a failure of youthful folly — in spirit, if not in fact. There’s hope in that.