Hirings, firings, diva-like behaviour, in-fighting, eccentricity, journalistic character-assassination, asexuality, veganism, reunions and massive cerebral haemorrhages. Sometimes, musicians struggle to make their art as compelling as the behind-the-scenes drama.
Throughout his nine solo albums, Morrissey has always personified the figurehead of the alternative-rock genre. Despite this, he has always resided in the shadow of the colossus that was The Smiths. Twenty-two years after their parted, it's still impossible to read anything regarding Morrissey without a mention of the S-word. Even here.
While Years of Refusal doesn't present itself as a reinvention for Morrissey, destined to blow away any-and-all recollections of his former band, it does signal an album which is able to stand upon its own merits. Were it not for the man's history, reputation and column inches, this would still be an album capable of garnering interest, praise and significant kudos.
To aid him in this endeavour, Morrissey enlisted the help of three songwriters to bring his musical vision into fruition. While the idiosyncratic lyricism and trademark affected singing is all his, the arrangements underneath are an altogether different story. It comes as no surprise that the three co-writers offer differing takes on the direction the man should be taking, what is a surprise is how noticeable the differences in style and quality are.
Boz Boorer is undoubtedly the weakest link on the album. His compositions are startlingly pedestrian in their construction. He makes little effort to raise his verses above 'notes to fill space', instead he hedges his bets on the big choruses, which although they try hard, never reach any greater heights than average. His tracks seem equally reliant on pointless additions to feign variety. The last-minute guitar solo on "Black Cloud" fails to remedy the mundane song which preceded it while the inclusion of a female soprano on the introduction of "That's How People Grow Up" is even more redundant, being quickly stifled once her role of filling time in the introduction is complete. Had they reprised her participation later in the song, perhaps her presence could have been justified, but alas, she is consigned to the abyss nevermore.
Jesse Tobias represents a step-up from Boorer. Bringing a restrained excitement to the table, he makes great use of breakdowns, knowing exactly when to reign it in and when to let a song explode into life. "All You Need Is Me" shows slight tendencies towards an experimental nature. We only wish the electronic corruption of the track near its culmination could have been expanded on. Curtain closer "I'm OK by Myself" actually sees Morrissey fighting for his airtime as he becomes buried by an increasingly frenzied arrangement pitting him against chaotic drum fills before they all vanish into the night.
The hero of the hour though, indisputably, is Alain Whyte. Of his five contributions to the album, every single one of them is exemplary. He starts the album with a glam-punk tone on "Something is Squeezing My Skull" before going militaristic on the tale of matriachal loss which is "Mama Lay Softly on the Riverbed". "When I Last Spoke to Carol" pushes the experimentation barrier even further with a mariachi showdown of a mid-section which inspires Morrissey to ratchet up his own game and unleash frantic howls of contorted emotion.
Liable to be everyone's answer to the question: "What's your favourite song on the new Morrissey album?" is "It's Not Your Birthday Anymore". Commencing with a muted rhythm section, the quivering vocal performance is intensely spotlighted. When banshee-like feedback distortion propels the song into action it seems to take all the power in the world to pull it back into a forlorn, muffled melancholy of a cut-down. Then, we are launched to even greater heights which see Morrissey tackling the highest registers of his vocal range. Even this will not prepare you for the spellbinding bridge, where linguistic interference is cast asunder as the man lets loose his most contagious vocalisations ever recorded. Pause, take a breath. This will be the highlight of the album.
Speaking of 'breath', it takes a troubled soul to imbue his gasps for air with a sense of weight. Yet on adjacent track "You Were Good in Your Time", each inhalation - cleverly retained on the final mix - carries with it an anchor of heartbreak. With that much power in oxygen consumption, when the actual vocals come, it's enough to make you slump in your chair and drown in empathy for the man. Once more, Whyte's penchant for experimentation takes us to new places as the song is abruptly jettisoned into a black hole as disembodied voices crackle over static and perilous groans echo out from the distance. A discordant, slight, and penetrating string section elevate the tension making for a surprising and completely impressive foray into new territories.
"Did you really think we meant all those syrupy sentimental things that we said?" he asks on "It's Not Your Birthday Anymore". "I've hammered a smile across this pasty face of mine." Wherever you look, and regardless of the compositional standard accompanying him, Morrissey is on the top of his game lyrically. Steeped in dark sexualised imagery, wry humour, decadent couplets and a gruesome sense of self-awareness, it's clear, that even as his clock strikes 50 that he continues to struggle with crises of identity while making his struggle evident via intellectually stimulating and visually frightening poetic devices. Years of Refusal is a resurgence of Cash-istic proportions. Hail! The man comes back around.