Time was when the former Smiths singer surfaced only once every five years or so to do the Carry On Morrissey routine. But the more you ignore him, the closer he gets. Barely half a year after he colonised the books pages, he’s back.
Is that a collective groan I hear? The release of a new Morrissey record really shouldn’t be a big deal. Since the mid-90s, his albums have worked to a formula that bolted sanctimonious, self-pitying lyrics to sub-Oasis guitar fluff. In his Autobiography, he repeatedly blames conspiratorial suits for keeping him from the top of the charts. This is sweet, but just not true. The problem, alas, was that the songs stunk.
But hang about. I’ve just listened to World Peace is None of Your Business, his new one, for the third time in a row – and I’m about to play it for a fourth. Is it possible that, for the first time in, what, 20 years, Morrissey has recorded a decent album?
In more than relative terms, yes. For one thing, you can usually judge a Morrissey album by its cover. This one sees our hero in a white T-shirt and jeans, squatting by the cracked plaster of a barrio wall. I feel very pleased with myself for identifying the grainy photograph as a nod to the jackets of Richard Allen’s Skinhead pulp novels. Morrissey titled ‘Suedehead’, his terrific first solo single, after one of them – it’s a good omen.
The music is imaginative, textured and tuneful. The opening title track begins with sound effects apparently nicked from Gladiator before collapsing into a leisurely – and very pretty – ballad. The woodwind on the elegant ‘Oboe Concerto’ is the sort of arrangement that tilts an okay song towards greatness. On ‘Istanbul’, there’s even an attempt at funk; it’s hardly Rick James, but it’s pretty exciting. The band provide a sympathetic ballast for Morrissey’s oratorical bellowing, better, perhaps, than any other musical backing he’s had since the Smiths split up.
Morrissey himself is still on cruise control. You can usually depend on at least one good one-liner per album, but if there’s one here it’s well hidden. The lyrics run from the perfunctory to the pathetic. ‘Brazil and Bahrain,’ he sings on the title track, ‘Oh Egypt, Ukraine – so many people in pain.’ That’s some profound shit, man. Or what about this, from ‘Mountjoy': ‘We never say aloud the things that we say in prayers – ’cause no-one cares.’ Diddums.
Elsewhere, the subject matter checklist is ticked off unthinkingly. There’s militant vegetarianism, (‘The Bulfighter Dies’) literary allusions (‘Neal Cassidy Drops Dead’) and some mild misogyny (‘Kick the Bride Down the Aisle’). On the strength of its title alone, ‘Earth is the Loneliest Planet’ is surely the most solipsistic pop record of 2014. But this is Morrissey. Self parody is his stock in trade. And World Peace is None of Your Business is only enjoyable if you can stomach it. Indulge the miserable sod, though, and it’s a blast.