by Devin King
July 2014 sees the release of Morrissey’s latest and perhaps most Morrissian-titled album to date: World Peace is None of Your Business. Morrissey the Performer has always demanded a closer critical review, as his actions and words – both in his music and outside of the music itself – are a closely scripted characterization of Morrissey the Character. More than ever, with this latest release, there is an evident slipping of the curtain to reveal Morrissey himself rather than Morrissey the Character. This later period Morrissey seems to be, intentionally or not, dropping many of the idiosyncrasies that define the Morrissey character.
Without making this a review of the latest album, it is worth noticing some of the changes between the Morrissey of The Smiths and his early solo output. These changes appear most evidently in the lyrics to these latest songs as well as in Morrissey’s mannerisms themselves. Any analysis of Morrissey should refer to Gavin Hopps’ work on the subject, Morrissey: The Pageant of His Bleeding Heart, a masterful work that clearly illuminates the very things that make Morrissey Morrissey.
Hopps applies a quote from Henry James regarding Oscar Wilde to the work of Morrissey: “the singer’s lyrics are a trap for the literalist.” Traditionally, this has been true in Morrissey’s work. Using “Sweet and Tender Hooligan” as an example, Hopps describes how the narrative voice is complicated by the lyrical content, the ironizing accents of an exterior perspective. Which is to say, the ironic way in which the lyrics are sung are contrary to the subject matter which seem more sympathetic to the “old man” written in the song. A literal reading of this song is thusly complicated.
An important aspect of Morrissey’s early work is its sense of play, with words, sound and meaning. Even if Morrissey isn’t trying to have a uniform message he’s trying to get across to the listener, he can often be characterized as seemingly toying with the listener’s sense of meaning or expectation. Though not universally true (“Meat is Murder” is a good example to the contrary) we find that this latest album has Morrissey dropping some of this sense of play for a more literal approach to songwriting.
The opening track, “World Peace is None of Your Business,” details several atrocities committed by governments and informs the reader that “every time you vote you support the process.” Like the Old Man Yelling at a Cloud, in his age Morrissey seems to have become more blunt in his politics. That is most evident in his strongest political passion, animal rights, which inform several of the tracks here. “The Bullfighter Dies,” includes the lyrics “the bullfighter dies / and nobody cries / because everyone wants the bull to survive,” which seems especially lazy in contrast to other Moz lyrics, not simply for its obvious and approximate rhymes. Had “Cemetry Gates” been written this way, it would have went “I stole the words from Wilde / because his diction drives me wild.”
More than just lyrically, the sense of play from Morrissey’s utterances seem more absent here than before. The groaning, altering, yodeling, sarcasm and interjections are largely abandoned on this record. That is, the “staged ineptitude” of his singing is gone, in favour of a more straightforward singing style (matching the straightforward, modern rock production.) Hopps provides the “sacrificial” nature that Morrissey sings the words “live or die” on “ Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” in contrast to how the rest of the lyrics are sung. The melisma-by-way-of-yodelling that is a signature way in which Morrissey has sung (think “what difference does it may-ay-ayyyke”) is almost completely absent. Both lyrically and in performance, a consistent trend on this album is a shying away from a sense of play or camp and towards the literal voice which he has rejected so often in the past.
This too is perhaps in line with critical evaluations of Morrissey. Hopps notes that “writing about Morrissey feels a little like Monty Python’s ‘Spanish Inquisition’ sketch, as one is forever having to back up and begin again to take in some additional, often contradictory perspective.” And so it may be that the Morrissey of 2014 isn’t so interested in the projection of a character that he has been presenting in the past. Largely, the Morrissey that we all know and many love is a finely honed series of idiosyncrasies through the lens of a playful spirit. The Stephen Patrick of World Peace is None of Your Business is not Morrissey, or at least the Morrissey we have always loved. Which perhaps makes it the most Morrissey album of all.