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The return of our most political singer: Morrissey

- July 9, 2014

(AP Photo/Jorge Saenz, File)
Returning to the ranks of the downloadable, Morrissey is back to explain the world. We should cherish this most political rock singer, although he is a very different beast than that which redefined British music, and lit up U.S. college radio, with his group The Smiths. The baiting of the monarchy and fascination with the dark side of British culture are in the past, but the lively new record shows Morrissey’s undimmed enthusiasm for picking a fight.
Leading The Smiths in the 1980s, Morrissey’s lithe wordplay skillfully skewered British political life, and the monarchy and Thatcherism were his prime targets. He set his songs in the rain-swept, humdrum north of England, despairing as the industrial lifeblood of the place drained away (having been there at the time, I can vouch for the accuracy of the portrait). In the mind of Morrissey, Prince Charles fantasized about wearing his mother’s wedding gown, the Queen herself was at risk of being flashed should she ever visit economically depressed northern towns, and hope seemed to lie in a revolutionary new order led by those the establishment had sought to criminalize.
The Smiths ended in acrimony, but Morrissey continued to scorch his political targets. His first solo album (1988’s “Viva Hate”) contained the best song of his career, a nuclear-age version of Sir John Betjeman’s vicious poem “Slough.” The album’s final track “Margaret on the Guillotine” brought a visit from the British security services: They asked how literally the singer meant his suggestion that Prime Minister Thatcher should lose her head. “The police, they actually know me!” he would later sing.
At the heart of 1992’s “Your Arsenal” was a three-song meditation on the depressing state of politics and culture in the Britain of the time. In “Glamorous Glue” two outsiders meet disappointment; an addict abandoned by friends and family alike, and a dreaming idealist, whispering slogans about sharing the Earth but disillusioned by the four-in-a-row streak of Tory election victories. In “We’ll Let You Know” football hooligans proclaim themselves to be the last true repositories of Britishness and are thus people that you really wouldn’t want to know
The mini-set culminates with “The National Front Disco” — the most controversial song of Morrissey’s career. It is the tale of a young man lost to jingoism and revolutionary fantasies, with the extremist British organization the National Front satirized by the conceit that its members plot their worst at low-rent dance-parties. In retrospect, the songs read like a barbed farewell to an England the singer would soon leave. “I used to dream and I used to vow,” he sang. “I wouldn’t dream of it now!”
Latter-era Morrissey has spent most of his time living abroad, in the U.S. and Italy, and the dark romance of his outsider lyrics has attracted a diverse new fan base. The more political of his songs rarely address parochial British concerns anymore, focusing instead on American foreign policy, such as in 2004’s excoriating “America is Not the World” and 2006’s “I Will See You in Far-off Places.” The latter narrated the afterlife from the standpoint of victims of a U.S. bombing strike, an act of empathy so startling that Slate’s Armond White wondered whether the singer was flirting with sedition.
All of which brings us to the new release, “World Peace is None of Your Business.” The centerpiece is the stunning title track, which is supported, in typically contrarian Morrissey style, by a spoken-word promotional video. The writing here is concise and direct. In modern politics, the role of the citizen is to be surveilled and manipulated, but not to tamper with arrangements made by the elite. Meanwhile, security forces use stun-guns on the people, the rich get richer, and voters cast meaningless ballots that grant a veneer of legitimacy to an ultimately corrupt process. It is an economical summary of modern discontent, drawing together anti-war, anti-state, and anti-1 percent protests in just a few lines. “Obama is useless,” the singer recently told Politico, and “British politics is a joke, although it’s rarely funny.”
“Istanbul” is the most complete song in the new package, an arresting match of music and lyric narrating a trek across the Turkish city in search of a lost son. The Smiths were so tied to time and place that to write about foreign lands was inconceivable; the mature Morrissey sets his songs in locations far and wide, imbuing the writing with a fresh cosmopolitanism.
Elsewhere, the PETA-endorsed “The Bullfighter Dies” continues the singer’s principled vegetarianism, whilst “Mountjoy” and “Oboe Concerto” give us cause to consider once more the question posed by Slate’s Stephen Metcalf: What is it about this man’s voice that breaks my heart?
Morrissey refuses to make way for the younger and the blander (why should he?) and his writing is growing ever more direct as the years pass. Is the new record a “stunning career high” as some are arguing? It’s certainly very good, and Morrissey continues to sound, after all these years, like a man looking for an argument.
Stephen Benedict Dyson is a political scientist at the University of Connecticut.