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Morrissey - Ringleader of the Tormentors Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 June 2006
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    8
sound:    8
release year:    2006
label:    Attack
reviewed by:    Dan MacIntosh

ImageAs a title for a Morrissey album, Ringleader of the Tormentors reads more like one for a speed metal band, or a chapter heading from William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” It does not describe Morrissey or his music. Ringleaders are typically type-A, take-charge personalities who rally troops around causes; Morrissey is a loner wallowing in his own self-pity. His body of work chronicles the life of a tormented soul (his), not the tormentor. He once begged, “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want,” while fronting his old band the Smiths, and the last time I checked, beggars can’t be bruisers. This world is filled with torturers, but Morrissey is not in their ranks. The facilitator of a Tormented Ones support group, perhaps, but with his sadly kind demeanor Morrissey is, despite his new album’s title, no bully.

Morrissey changed continents after releasing his last CD, the commercially and artistically successful “You are the Quarry.” He moved from Hispanic-centric Los Angeles, which inspired his previous album’s gang-related sob story “First of the Gang to Die,” to Italy, where he hooked up with a special new producer.

As a boy, Morrissey sketched T. Rex album artwork on school book covers, and now he’s working with Tony Visconti, the legendary glam producer for Mark Bolan and David Bowie, which must be a dream come true. This glitter music architect’s presence comes as no surprise to longtime Moz watchers; Morrissey also hired Mick Ronson, Bowie’s famed Spiders from Mars guitarist, to produce his 1992 Your Arsenal album. Visconti is merely the latest ‘70s hero to cross paths professionally with Morrissey.

But Visconti does not leave much of a fingerprint upon Morrissey’s latest. Ringleader of the Tormentors won’t create David Bowie Diamond Dogs deja vu or a Young Americans soul stir, nor does it bring back the spirited latter-day roots rock revival that flowed through T. Rex’s Electric Warrior and The Slider. Morrissey has evolved into a skilled rock balladeer over the years and Visconti mostly helps Morrissey be Morrissey, which has always been the sound of Stephen Patrick Morrissey killing himself softly with his songs. “I Will See You in Far Off Places” is driven by madly swirling, Middle Eastern sounding guitars, but Visconti makes certain Morrissey’s enunciated vocals come clearly through the track’s mystic haze. “In the Future When All’s Well” is this album’s most Visconti moment. Boz Boorer’s acoustic guitar groove, over Gary Day’s rumbling bass line, somewhat approximates an acoustic take on T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On).” But Morrissey is by no means playfully getting it on when he sheepishly admits, “Every day I play/A sad game called/In the future when all’s well.” Visconti also deserves special notice for wonderfully capturing Morrissey’s high vocal range on the melodramatic “I’ll Never Be Anybody’s Hero Now,” as he surrounds this male diva with distinctive acoustic piano trills.

Ennio Morricone, the noted Italian composer who added instrumental drama to Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” sets the scene for a quiet, heartfelt ballad called “Dear God Please Help Me.” It’s a musical conversation between Morrissey and God, centered in Italy, that begins innocently with, “I am walking through Rome/With my heart on a string,” before evolving into a full-blown debate over sexual morality.

Morrissey desperately needs talented collaborators like Visconti and Morricone, because his musical instincts do not match his lyrical high standards. His back catalogue is littered with clunkers, like the Kill Uncle and Southpaw Grammar albums, which temporarily tested faithful fans’ loyalty. His writing partnership with Mark E. Nevin of Fairground Attraction might have been a good idea at the time, but the consensus on “Sing Your Life” from 1991’s Kill Uncle is that it is a forgettable song, from a forgettable era. Its lyrics dumb down the singer/songwriter’s life, and these pedestrian words are then put to an annoying music hall melody.

Morrissey always faces critical scrutiny with each successive release; he should be used to it by now. New works are compared and contrasted at length with that special magic Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr created as the Smiths. Only twice, on Vauxhall and I and You are the Quarry, has Morrissey come close to attaining the Smiths’ former glory. Marr is an incredibly inventive guitarist who can out-jangle Roger McGuinn one moment, then out-cool Keith Richards the next, making his absence from most Morrissey solo recordings conspicuous.

Anyone who treasures the Smiths’ The Queen is Dead knows exactly
what I mean. This nearly perfect work incorporated unrequited love (“The Boy with the Thorn in His Side”), hopelessness (“I Know It’s Over”) and bass-ackwards hope (“There is a Light That Never Goes Out”) better than most albums before or since. Morrissey was at the top of his game, both lyrically and vocally, while Marr added furiously strummed six-string textures to “Bigmouth Strikes Again” and conjured up all the necessary dread from “Never Had No One Ever.”

It’s not clear if sex, drugs or food analogy works best here, but every new Morrissey project raises expectations for another “The Queen is Dead” climax/high/satisfaction experience. Are such comparisons reasonable and fair? Of course not. But once Morrissey endorphins have euphorically coursed through your veins, you cannot forget them, and you’re driven like an addict to bring that pleasurable past back into the present tense. Ringleader of the Tormentors is no great lay; it’s not the new crack or even the Baskin-Robbins flavor of the week. But it’s also no embarrassment.

Morrissey, now in his late 40s, is no closer to understanding life’s deeper meaning than he was as a 20-something Smith. This disc’s opening words highlight his philosophical dilemma. “Nobody knows what human life is/Why we come, why we go.” Maybe this is an age-related thing, but Morrissey also talks a whole lot more than he used to about God. He ponders the afterlife in “I Will See You in Far Off Places,” discusses frank sex with His Holiness in “Dear God Please Help Me” and namedrops the Higher Power in a few other key places. And it wouldn’t be a true Morrissey album without the underlying stench of death or a few ruined childhood tales. Morrissey hits each of these familiar marks succinctly during “The Father Who Must be Killed” when he sings, “And the father who must be killed/Is the blight upon your blighted life.”

The Moz is no longer tormented by fresh memories of mean-spirited schoolteachers, which he recollected with “The Headmaster Ritual” on the Smiths’ Meat Is Murder. He’s now troubled by contemporary physical and emotional pollution, which he details with “Life is a Pigsty.” What’s left of his thin hope has been pinned upon a future generation, perhaps. “For my own life I don’t care anything/I just want to see this boy happy.”

This CD also features Morrissey’s wry wit. But when he tries to be
funny, he often turns to gallows humor. As the character in “On the Streets
I Ran” begs for his life, he pleads with God: “Dear God, take him/Take them, take anyone/The stillborn, the newborn/The infirm – take anyone/Take people from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.”

Morrissey’s accumulated musical confessions have transformed this pop singer into a messianic kindred spirit for many. Presumably, he’s their Jesus, and Prozac’s their sacrament. Ringleader of the Tormentors presents an older and wiser Morrissey, but not a happier one. Continuing the Biblical analogy, this release is not the Book of Revelation – at least not in the grand scheme of things. Think of it, instead, as being akin to a fifth gospel that further testifies to Morrissey’s consistently empathetic encouragement to tormented ones everywhere. Call him the ringleader for group self pity, if you must label him a leader at all. But make no mistake about it: Morrissey leads by example.

Tormentors sounds terrific. With its liberal use of acoustic piano, blaring horns – especially during “I Just Want to See the Boy Happy” – and children’s choir (closing “At Last I Am Born”), this is not a typical rock
recording. Its sonic mix is best enjoyed on a stereo equipped to bring out the nuances in classical music, as well as vocal pop.

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