Long one of rock and roll’s most cantankerous headline makers, the past eighteen months have seen Morrissey refining his troublemaking tactics in new and unforeseen ways. There was the generally well-received but appropriately polemical memoir (issued with winking pomposity on the Penguin Classics imprint, usually reserved for authors of canonical importance), the Jimmy Kimmel/Duck Dynasty imbroglio, a Rashomon-style misunderstanding with the Staples Center over their willingness to serve only vegetarian food during his March 1, 2013 appearance, and most recently a not-atypical spate of tour date cancellations, comically blamed upon his opening act. As ever, it is verging on impossible to separate the persona from the man, or to parse whether Moz is truly miserable or merely having fun. Characteristically, he has responded with droll insouciance to each controversy, most memorably addressing longstanding rumors of his failing health with the Bartlett’s-worthy non-denial: “The reports of my death have been greatly understated.”
All of which brings us to World Peace Is None Of Your Business, twelve largely dense and wooly tracks that comprise Morrissey’s first full-length since 2009’s late-period tour de force, Years Of Refusal. Given all that has occurred surrounding the release, it’s well nigh impossible to hear this new material and not seek some manner of genuine insight into the artist’s current state of mind. And it is likewise difficult not to conclude that that state of mind is very bleak indeed.
Longtime Morrissey fans will probably recognize by the early strains of the opening title track that we should buckle up for some Meat Is Murder-style lecture time. Over a slow-building wash of percussion and atmospherics, and an eventual 4:32 running time which feels even longer, we are informed of the corruption of world governments, the brutality of police and military, and the uselessness of voting (it only makes the problem worse). Of the many different hats he is inclined to wear, the singer as self-appointed Moz-splainer of global affairs is by orders of magnitude the most tiresome and least well-preserved by time. While a very few artists have ever mixed the personal and political with greater deftness, it is also true that at his worst Morrissey’s didactic pedantry verges on insufferable. Here his backing band, featuring longtime collaborator Boz Boorer, does its best to wrestle this ungainly tune into something more than a messy harangue. They’ll do better later, but they’ve drawn the short straw to start.
The infinitely more intriguing though scarcely less approachable second track “Neal Cassady Drops Dead” finds Morrissey channeling his dark mood in more constructive ways, wedding the Beat Generation fantasias of the title to a horrifying litany of disease, deprivation and human misery. As the band hammers away in a minor key, Moz stipulates a stark choice: “Victim or life’s adventurer — which of the two are you?” He doesn’t seem to have a particular preference, he’s just curious. We are now two songs in without much in the way of a discernible hook.
On the third track, “I’m Not A Man,” the hits still aren’t coming. Following yet another extended atmospheric intro, we segue into Moz in full-on ’40s Tin Pan Alley mode, as he renders his antipathy over the sort of orchestral prettiness he exploited to great effect on You Are The Quarry. But with an eight-minute run time, this too feels like a Trojan horse designed to take us further into the singer’s dyspeptic mood storm. Here we have Morrissey listing traditional masculine stereotypes — Don Juan, picaresque, wheeler-dealer, and, curiously, Beefaroni — as a means of defining all the things he isn’t. Even full-fledged partisans might be forgiven for wondering when the lecture ends and the record begins.
Bolstered by a bluesy guitar figure suggesting Bo Diddley by way of Your Arsenal and a plaintive lyric concerning the lost love of a mysterious “brown eyed son,” “Istanbul” feels like the initial instance in which patrons of World Peace Is None Of Your Business might be entitled to a small ration of fun. First-time Moz producer Joe Chiccharelli expertly creates the space for Morrissey’s crooning laments while simultaneously maintaining the intoxicating conviction of the band’s forceful groove. Abetted by subtle Eastern touches on keys and percussion, “Istanbul” suggests the exquisite, Cold War exoticism of a Graham Greene novel rendered in song. Best of all, Morrissey has stopped yelling at us. At least for a few minutes.
One of several tracks on the new record to prominently feature a Latin flair — in this case Mariachi-flavored accordion and flamenco guitar — “Earth Is The Loneliest Planet” is up-tempo and earnest, but never coheres into the ingratiating pop track it seemingly aspires to be. Once again, band and producer admirably attempt to rouse Morrissey from his moribund ill humor, but not even the most coaxing of collaborators can be expected to rescue lyrics like “Humans/ are not really very humane.” Morrissey’s pen remains amongst the sharpest implements anywhere, but for a man of his gifts and achievements, this can’t help but feel a bit like mailing it in.
World Peace can feel schizophrenic at times, with its frequently buoyant second half creating a jarring juxtaposition alongside the record’s menacing opening gambits. As if to acknowledge the paucity of crowd pleasers, Moz next dials up a stone killer on the melodic, jangly, darkly hilarious “Staircase At The University,” the sort of remarkably detailed and poignant character study that he has regularly turned out with such seeming ease for so many years. The brief, thumbnail portrait of a coed pressured by her family to succeed beyond her abilities recalls previous classics like “Hairdresser On Fire” and “The First Of The Gang To Die,” and is no less sympathetic for the offhandedness of its shrugging resolution: “Staircase at the university/ she threw herself down/ and her head split three ways.”
Pointed yet amiable, “The Bullfighter Dies” keeps the momentum going over a breezy and winsome two minutes, both evoking and rejecting Ernest Hemingway’s fascination with bullfighting as the ultimate expression of courage and machismo. In Morrissey’s telling, it’s the matador who meets his end, finding the horns to the delight of an audience who never wished ill on the animal to begin with. In its seemingly tossed-off fashion, this feels like Morrissey at his most personal — giving expression to profound convictions over a sing-along chorus Marc Bolan would have been proud of.
The uncompromisingly carnal and amorous “Kiss Me A Lot” is another winner, one whose vaulting, infectious chorus (“Kiss me a lot all over my face/ kiss me all over the place”) makes for one of the artist’s most straightforward ever declarations of unadulterated lust. The track also represents the album’s most successful attempt to seamlessly incorporate Latin flavors into the artist’s typical trick bag, with border horns and Spanish guitar lines abetting the performance without sounding like a too clever afterthought. Having frontloaded the record with material ranging from difficult to impenetrable, the running order seems intent on rewarding the patience of those who fearlessly traversed the album’s opening. But for how long?
The bleak and enigmatic “Smiler With Knife” signals yet another shift in mood for World Peace Is Not Your Business, as Moz plumbs the depths of romantic despair in a weary, crushing acoustic ballad which may or may not be one man’s plea to be stabbed by his lover. Over a complex arrangement that nimbly combines jazz-tinged guitar with major key synth reverie, Morrissey brings us closer to Chet Baker territory than ever before, the slight rasp in his mature voice made more affecting by the lyrics’ unsettled mood. If we wanted middle age made comforting, it’s best to look elsewhere.
Regrettably, the stuck-in-the-mud, mid-tempo exertions of “Kick The Bride Down The Aisle” feels once again more like a good idea than an actual song. Back on his soapbox, Morrissey has a great deal to say about society girls and the institution of marriage, but precious little which makes for compelling listening. B-side material at best.
Down the homestretch, the lovely and discursive “Mountjoy” takes its time, the aggressive acoustic strumming and leisurely phrasing suggesting nothing less than Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Paradoxically, and perhaps by design, Morrissey reiterates many of the record’s initial political hypotheses to far greater impact here. When he resignedly utters the refrain, “We all lose,” the demoralized gentility hurts far worse than any of the earlier material’s spiteful demagoguery.
Final track “Oboe Concerto” splits the difference between the record’s first and second halves, keeping the mood ruefully engaging while invoking the ardent rage of its starting point. It shapes up as an appropriately ambiguous ending to what may well be the most mercurial release from Morrissey to date.
So what have we learned? At first blush, World Peace Is None Of Your Business feels transitional, and ultimately unsuccessful. As Morrissey continues the forced-march trajectory from contemporary star to legacy artist, he has necessarily expanded his musical and lyrical palette to include concerns larger than the shoplifters of the world. That process has not always been flattering, and the worst of those results are in evidence here.
Still, this is a fascinating record that rewards repeated listens, just as the equally difficult Southpaw Grammar did nearly twenty years ago. Morrissey is a visionary artist who has spent much of his long and storied career betting that his most seemingly ill-judged exertions will age gracefully. On this score, he has been right far more than he has been wrong, and World Peace Is None Of Your Business may well follow in that tradition. Even at his most sonically dissonant and tonally untethered, he often knows more than the rest of us.