- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Years of Refusal
Lost Highway

Middle age is not always kind to the cultural figures of one’s youth, but it has been improbably benevolent to the British pop icon Morrissey. Morrissey, who turns 50 in May, has just released the impressively vigorous “Years of Refusal,” making it three rock-solid albums in a row since “You Are the Quarry” rejuvenated his career in 2004 after a seven-year recording hiatus.

Morrissey’s comeback is surprising less for its commercial and artistic achievements than for the deceptive ease with which today’s Morrissey simply gets on with the business of being “Morrissey.” Even those outside his devoted cult cannot fail to notice how self-assured a writer and singer he has become, collaborating with his longtime backing band to toss off incisive, hard pop gems with seeming effortlessness. The voice itself is a deeper, more powerful instrument, too, and Morrissey wields it with the kind of pinpoint control that suggests a lack of conscious decision-making, as if over time the process of singing has become fully internalized and instinctual.

Not to say that the “Pope of Mope” has suddenly gone angst-free, but one of the many delights of the recent albums is listening to a looser, more confident Morrissey play around with his public image, stretching its boundaries in sometimes enlightening and often hilarious ways. (You’d have to take Clint Eastwood’s movie work over the past 15 years to find a comparably self-referential icon who seems to have as much fun riffing on his own mythology.)

Like its two immediate predecessors, “Years of Refusal” builds outward from a core of hook-laden neo-punk rock songs. It opens with an up-to-the-minute state-of-Morrissey report, bluntly titled “Something Is Squeezing My Skull,” wherein the singer expounds upon the dubious benefits of psychopharmacology. Morrissey sounds gleefully demented as he slides his voice up the scale to nail the word “skull” every time he gets to the title phrase, but he finds himself reduced to pleading frantically at the end, “How long must I stay on this stuff? Don’t gimme any more!”

“All You Need Is Me” and “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris” are similarly muscular and tuneful. The former adds a little music-hall swing to its crunching guitars (“You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone”). The latter features a big, soaring refrain that characteristically uses absurd exaggeration to balance heartbreak and comedy (“I’m throwing my arms around Paris because only stone and steel accept my love”).

But the bleak hilarity only serves to heighten the romantic devastation that is Morrissey’s central theme. “It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore,” the album’s dynamic centerpiece, is stunning in its flashes of unbridled bitterness toward a former lover, with Morrissey vacillating between tender verses and seething choruses. As the song rumbles to a close, Morrissey runs out of words — there’s nothing left for him to do but literally howl in bewilderment and pain.

The quietly respectful “You Were Good in Your Time” pays homage to a dying star and to the way art can provide the balm of community to far-flung misfits. Nothing gets closer to the truth of what Morrissey took from the rock idols of his youth, and what he has passed on to others, than when he sings, “You made me feel not quite so deformed, uninformed and hunchbacked.”

The creation and subtle evolution of the unique and not-quite immutable character “Morrissey” is a brilliant creative achievement. Although Morrissey was hardly the first musician to glamorize the anguish and melodrama of adolescence, no one had ever dared to go quite so far in setting up a franchise dedicated almost exclusively to sexual confusion, romantic longing, self-loathing, self-pity, bitter irony, blame and resentment.

In retrospect, the tragicomic territory Morrissey staked out and made his own seems so obviously bountiful that you wonder why no one claimed it before. But such is the nature of successful pioneering, and more than 25 years later, Morrissey is not only defending his patch with genuine gusto, he is back at the top of his game and making an extremely convincing case that “Morrissey” is an entirely appropriate thing for a middle-aged man to be — that grown-up, relevant, universal truths can still be gleaned from an over-the-top persona born of one outcast young man’s miserable self-obsession.

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