By Mark Guarino
Entering an age where most his peers are playing to bald heads, beer guts and gray beards, Morrissey is renewed.
The former lead crooner of The Smiths is bigger than he has been in years, thanks to a first rate comeback album two years back and a new Latino fanbase that connects with his existential songs about romantic death and deathly love.
Another reason is that the overwhelming sadness in Morrissey’s music and disaffection with society’s rules share a similar spirit with the ranchera ballads popularized by stars like Juan Gabriel.
Taken in a Morrissey concert lately? If so, you’ve seen displayed the singer-as-icon with an audience that no marketer could have predicted, from thirtysomething hipsters to teenage misfits to Mexican youths to gay leather men. In sharing the pain, all are welcome.
“Ringleader of the Tormentors” (Sanctuary), his latest album in stores today, is considerably darker than the songs on “You Are the Quarry” (Sanctuary), a more streamlined pop effort that capitalized on his view of America from living on the inside.
“Ringleader” moves the backdrop from Los Angeles to Rome. Producing is Tony Visconti, who is responsible for launching visionary British glam rockers T-Rex and shaping David Bowie’s seminal 1970s period. The songs are heavier (one song opening is an indirect homage to Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary”), featuring big chugging guitars, occasional drum loops and, with results that sound particularly sinister, a children’s choir. Responding to Morrissey’s description of a favorite son turned killer (“The Youngest Was the Most Loved”), the choir chirps, “there is no such/thing in life as normal.”
Lyrically, this album is out of ideas. “Dear God Please Help Me” is mucked up by strings (by famed Italian film composer Ennio Morricone no less) and Morrissey’s attempt at metaphorical blasphemy while the title sentiment of “Life is a Pigsty,” complete with background thunder and rain, is a gloomy bore.
But Morrissey has been holding the same hankie since the 1980s. His real appeal is how his tender voice stirs amid righteous guitars and pop hooks. While the glossiest punk songs here feature irresistible catchy choruses (“In the Future When All’s Well,” “I Just Want to See the Boy Happy”), the most unusual and freshest step is the opening song, “I Will See You in Far Off Places.” It crackles with ominous atmosphere and Middle Eastern accents. Morrissey sings of his fear of losing his lover in wartime: “Destiny for some is to save lives/but destiny for some is to end lives.” Like all his signature sentiments — “meat is murder” for starters — there is no better delivery than direct.