It’s hard to believe now that there was a time when I wasn’t looking forward to each and every Morrissey album release. Somewhere between Southpaw Grammar and Maladjusted, I just lost interest. I still ended up getting them, I just wasn’t nearly as energized by his music that I was by other, more guitar driven bands of the time, like Jawbox and Quicksand. Nor was I personally connecting with his dourness as I had been in his days with the Smiths and his first solo records. I remember having a trilateral discussion with my brother and a friend who posed the question, “Who has a better voice, Bernard Sumner or Morrissey?” To this day, I can’t even tell you why I even pondered the question. As much as I love New Order, and even Electronic, there are times when, especially in a live setting, Bernard Sumner’s voice gives me fits. Morrissey’s gifts have always been his vocal prowess and lyrical ability. The question should have been a no-brainer, but what haunts me to this day is that I have no recollection of how I answered. Beside Morrissey himself, the one thing that these two memories have in common is that they were both solved, once and for all, by You Are the Quarry, the Mozzer’s magnificent comeback to the spotlight after seven years on the periphery.
That particular album, and its successor, Ringleader of the Tormentors, helped us all realize that Morrissey was not gone, by any means, and that he was still a magnificent artist that could not be pigeonholed by era. Those of us, who have considered ourselves fans of Steven Patrick, have lived and breathed with the emotive crooner for at least a quarter century, but we’ve never lived and breathed as aggressively as with his latest, Years of Refusal. On this album, which seemed interminably delayed due to the sad loss of producer Jerry Finn and the lack of an American label (Lost Highway to the rescue! I’m sure that one caused a few head scratches), Morrissey has seemingly found his most potent backing band of collaborators yet. Matt Walker (Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage) and Solomon Walker (no evidence as to any relation) provide some of the most electrifying rhythm lines in the singer’s long career, while the dual guitar assault of Jesse Tobias (who nerds like myself will recognize as one of the co-writers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s musical episode, “Once More with Feeling”) and Boz Boorer is explosive at the very least.
Guitarists continue to be the secret weapons behind Morrissey’s dramatic swagger. From his early days with Billy Duffy, to his legendary collaboration with Johnny Marr, and beyond, guitarists have been the Mozzer’s musical BFF’s. (Jeff Beck even makes a guest appearance on the track, “Black Cloud.”) Years of Refusal is no different, with Tobias, Boorer, and Alain Whyte co-writing all of the songs on the album. Each bring their own particular flavor to the mix, with Whyte providing more of the classic Morrissey sound, Boorer more of a proto-punk / rockabilly feel, like a less stoic Richard Hawley, and Tobias a hard-edged pop sensibility. Ultimately, the sum of these parts turns out to be greater than any one individual contribution. Plus, without looking at the liner notes, you’d be hard pressed to guess who penned each song. This is evident with the opening crunch of lead track “Something is Squeezing My Skull,” a hard charging number that finds Morrissey matching the music in energy and fire. In fact, I can think of few other times when his voice rises at the end of a line as it does during the first chorus. His repeated, rapid-fire delivery of “don’t gimmie anymore” is still further evidence of a continued intensity since his 2004 comeback.
But again, the highlight of any Morrissey record is his phenomenal voice. Particular highlights that showcase his still powerhouse vocal prowess include “Mama Lay Softly on the Riverbed,” “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris” and the Morricone flavored “When Last I Spoke to Carol.” The latter’s Spanish horns and whistling are a welcome addition to the repertoire, amazingly fitting in perfectly with the band’s style. Another surprise on Years of Refusal is the dramatic “It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore.” Yes, its lyrics are purely classic Morrissey, but the music sounds mined from the extraordinarily grandiose heyday of U2, with the Moz doing his best Bono, stretching his vocals farther than ever before. The song is breathtaking, and sure to be a fan favorite for years to come.
Toward the end of the album, Morrissey becomes seemingly self-deprecating (what a shocker), with the song, “You Were Good In Your Time.” The irony here is that Morrissey is far from `washed up.’ To answer most readers’ questions at this point, yes, Years of Refusal is Morrissey’s best record since insert your own personal favorite Morrissey album here. Eventually, Morrissey will vanish from the stage, but if this latest album is any indication, he sure hasn’t lost steam yet, in fact, he’s only improved. With lyrics such as “you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone” (off earlier single, “All You Need is Me” and “you will never see the one you love again” (off “One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell”), one might worry that our hero is planning on exiting stage left. But, since most of Morrissey’s songs read like suicide notes, one can summarily dismiss any hidden or even overt subtext. That aside, we can lay back and enjoy what is arguably one of the Mozzer’s best albums to date. On the back cover (I’m not even touching that front cover), under the producer credit and recording location, the words “Play Very Loud” are printed. You best believe it.