By Adam Depollo, Online Arts Editor
Published July 14, 2014
Whatever might be said about Steven Patrick Morrissey, there is no doubt that modern pop culture would not exist as it does without him. The antipodean cultural politics suffusing his music — both with the Smiths and in his later solo work — paved the way for countless anti-establishment musicians to achieve success, while his ability to craft an enigmatic, yet profoundly relatable identity both on and off the stage made the very idea of larger-than-life pop stars like Bono, Madonna and even Kanye West a possibility.
World Peace Is None of Your Business
While traces of that looming presence are visible on Morrissey’s latest album World Peace Is None Of Your Business, close inspection reveals the cracks in the façade of the singer’s sphinxlike persona.
Fans of the British rocker — of which there are many of the die-hard variety — praise him for his melancholy lyrics tinged with shades of dark humor, his subversive political songs and for his compelling character studies of society’s underclass. All three of those elements are present on World Peace, and a few of the album’s tracks are as troubling and beautiful as any of the singer’s work. The soaring choruses of “Istanbul” explore the tortured psyche of a failed father over bitterly resonant guitars while, on “Smiler With Knife,” Morrissey wallows in suicidal longing over dissonant melodies, meditating on the realization that “Time has frittered long and slow /All (he is) and was will go.”
Unfortunately, those moments of brilliance are few and far between.
More often than not, Morrissey crafts songs that incorporate all of the elements that his fans adore, but in a watered-down, incoherent form that stands in stark contrast with the singer’s finest work. The title track, a ‘60s protest song-inspired ballad, is the most blatantly political song on the album and also one of the most clunky and disjointed, with Morrissey cobbling together a smattering of vaguely 99-percenter sentiments without taking any particular stance on the subject. A number of his lyrics are simply indecipherable, like the jumbled rhymes (“Babies full of rabies / Rabies full of scabies” or “Gaga in Málaga, / No mercy in Murcia”) on “Neal Cassady Drops Dead” and “The Bullfighter Dies.” At other times, as on “Staircase at the University” or “Earth is the Loneliest Place,” it’s hard not to think that, like a TV psychic, Morrissey’s lyrics only succeed in speaking to people by virtue of their vagueness.
On a purely musical level, more often than not Morrissey seems to be at war with his band. There are a few instrumental gems, like the glittering guitars and keyboards on “I’m Not a Man,” and the splashes of noise sprinkled throughout the album are a welcome touch. Morrissey’s voice also seems to be improving with age — he abandons most of the whininess present on his earlier material while maintaining his strong baritone. But even those successes are cheapened by Morrissey’s clumsy vocal rhythms and bombastic, operatic delivery — both holdovers from his time with The Smiths — which seem to say that his voice is the only thing worth paying attention to and fail to cohere with the music going on around him.
The most disappointing aspect of World Peace, however, is the inescapable feeling that I’ve heard this all before. The instrumentals provided by Morrissey’s band combine an eclectic group of influences into a combination that, rather than creating something new and exciting, sounds like a group of studio musicians rehashing ideas from their other projects. With the exception of songs like “Smiler With Knife” and “Istanbul,” a number of his lyrics seem like leftovers from his earlier albums and others simply repackage platitudes as profound discoveries — he astutely observes on the closing track “Oboe Concerto” that, yes, the “round rhythm of life goes round.”
While the more devoted Morrissey fans will likely see the same biting social commentary and brooding lyricism in World Peace as they do in his other work, I can’t say that he’s succeeded in casting me under his spell.