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Morrissey has been in the business of writing pop songs that range from piercingly caustic to hopelessly dour for over 30 years now, since the 1983 release of The Smiths’ debut single, “Hand in Glove.” He can veer from self-righteous grandstanding to maudlin self-pity with astonishing rapidity. He also has a gift for turning his observations into stories with characters that tend to meet bleak endings (like the poor student who buckles under immense pressure and flings herself down a case of stairs in the gleefully morbid “Staircase at the University.”) For World Peace is None of Your Business, Morrissey mostly stays within familiar thematic territory; ranging from mordant to unabashedly sincere and romantic (“Kiss Me a Lot”). Fans will note titles like “Smiler with a Knife,” “Kick the Bride Down the Aisle,” “Neal Cassady Drops Dead,” and “The Bullfighter Dies” with a knowing smile of recognition. As always, Morrissey spends a goodly portion of his time ruminating on mortality and mankind’s capacity for betraying each other and of course the Earth itself, almost as if he views himself as a non-human commentator offering scathing analysis of the human race for an alien species trying their best to understand our foibles (good luck with that).
It is rather strange to think that while The Smiths’ recorded output spans a mere 4 years, Morrissey has been churning out solo albums for 26 years, most of them quite good. He’s achieved a few moments of brilliance – – Viva Hate, Your Arsenal, Vauxhall & I and You Are the Quarry, most notably. World Peace is None of Your Business can safely be mentioned in the same breath as these career pinnacles.
Of course, it could have been titled Life Generally Sucks and We’re All Going to Die Lonely, Grim, Gruesome Deaths Which We Richly Deserve, but that could be true for just about any of Morrissey’s records. His first album of new studio material since Years of Refusal five years ago, World Peace is None of Your Business is musically the most diverse of Morrissey’s career; it sounds absolutely nothing like anything he’s ever released. Oh, there are the soaring vocals, the morosely theatrical turns like something out of a Scott Walker album, but musically it’s a patchwork of rock and electronic with hints and tastes from just about every direction imaginable.
The title track is a swooning torch-song, with a sweeping melody and sardonic observations like “Police will stun you with their stun guns, or they’ll disable you with tasers. That’s what government’s for, oh you poor little fool, oh you fool.” The vocals are down in the mix and drenched in reverb; they often seem to be coming from a within a dense layer of fog. Musically there is more experimentation than on the typical Morrissey album, which is usually fairly straightforward guitar-rock. In the heavy guitar blasts of “Neal Cassady Drops Dead” there are occasional whirs of keyboard that sound like lasers cutting through the dense murk (and then there are quiet patches of flamenco guitar that offer a brief respite before the sonic assault begins again).
Morrissey has never been afraid to take on any convention, and he turns his acerbic eye toward traditional notions of masculinity on the epic near 8-minute “I’m Not a Man.” He proclaims “I’m something much bigger and better than a man” as “I’d never kill or eat an animal, and I never would destroy this planet. Well, what do you think I am, a man?” He goes on to say, “You are the soldier who won’t get much older,” and he then sneers, “wolf down t-bone steak, wolf down cancer of the prostate.” The track winds down with a sledgehammer fury and brain-searing screams that seem to sonically portray the Earth howling in agony as it’s being battered by those destructive men of which Morrissey is certainly not one, until it all evaporates in a haze of static and fuzz. Poor Earth. Cue Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World,” STAT.
But it’s not only men who are subject to Morrissey’s barbed pen. Take the pernicious lady in “Kick the Bride Down the Aisle.” After all, “she just wants a slave to break his back in pursuit of a living wage so that she can laze and graze for the rest of her days.” What a charming notion. But ahh that tricksy guy, it ends up being about a man’s weakness again, as he helpfully provides, “You’re the stretch on the beach that the tide doesn’t reach, no meaning, no reason, the lonely season.” Gee, thanks for pointing that out, I think I’ll go fling myself down a flight of stairs.
“Earth is the Loneliest Planet” is one of the high points, built on a frantic acoustic guitar riff and loaded with electric guitar effects, layers of choral and operatic backing vocals, unexpected flares of piano that appear from out of nowhere, and one of the stronger melodies on the album. It’s a brilliant and innovative concoction that shows that Morrissey was not content to release just another typical album, and indeed he doesn’t. Morrissey is in fine voice throughout, his distinct croon as rich and emotive as ever (when it needs to be), as haughty and detached as ever (when required.)
“Smiler with Knife” is perhaps the most powerfully emotional piece on the album. It starts with a sparse acoustic accompaniment before distorted keyboard occasionally breaks the morbid spell, with Morrissey’s intoning with potent intensity in his lower register: “Smiler with a Knife, you’re just in time! Press the blade against my skin, never to make love again… I am sick to death with life.” It is a legitimate, if stylized, presentation of what a genuinely suicidal mood feels like. There’s a knowing gravity to it, like it’s in a language that Morrissey understands will only reach those who have been in this state to its fullest degree. He turns convention on its side as he reassures the knife-wielder with the repetition of “you’ll be OK” and then a long, relatively sunny acoustic coda with spears of electric guitar looming above. It’s a song that one can only imagine coming from Morrissey, and it exemplifies once again the unique and pivotal place Morrissey holds in our musical and pop culture fabric.
On “The Bullfighter Dies,” Morrissey unambiguously cheers for the bullfighter’s death and the survival of the bull, an unsurprising stance given his outspoken support for animal rights. “Kiss Me A lot” is a romantic rocker which features the arresting image of Morrissey making out in a “Bastille mausoleum.” “Istanbul” is one of the more standard Morrissey-sounding tracks on the album, with churning guitars and a heavy beat – it’s one of the few tracks on World Peace that could fit comfortably on any of his other solo albums. The otherwise solemn “Oboe Concerto” is adorned with weird little zooming synthesizer lines that sound like something that might squirt out of the back of a flying car in The Jetsons. He laments dramatically, “there’s a song I can’t stand and it’s stuck in my head!” I hate it when that happens.
World Peace is None of Your Business is undeniably hard to penetrate. The songs seem oddly remote and detached on first listen, but they eventually unthaw. Morrissey’s melodic hooks are rarely the instantly memorable kind (the title track is an exception to this), but they sink in on repeated listens. The deluxe version contains 18 tracks and stretches a daunting 2 hours, so it’s a lot of information to absorb, but the time investment needed ultimately pays off. It’s an indisputably ambitious record — perhaps after 9 albums that are generally similar stylistically Morrissey felt a need to push the envelope for his 10th. He and producer Joe Chiccarelli weave an odd musical patchwork that generally serves the songs well. It’s certainly sweet having a new Morrissey album that’s so challenging after a 5-year absence. Perhaps World Peace is None of Your Business could have been a bit tighter, but give credit to Morrissey for trying something different. It’s a left turn that is alternately frustrating, fascinating, and worth the strange journey to get to its heart. It’s ridiculous in that wonderful way in which Morrissey is always ridiculous. Sometimes he feels like the cold, dry voice of realty when nobody else wants to say the emperor has no clothes, but Morrissey never hesitates to relay the truth as he sees it.