Morrissey finds new inspiration in Italy

by Beacon Staff • March 22, 2006

During a recent interview with Rolling Stone's David Fricke at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, Morrissey disappointed fans of downtrodden rock everywhere by saying that his former band, The Smiths, turned down $5 million to reunite for this year's Coachella music festival.

Then again, Morrissey has made a living out of disappointment; as he croons during "On The Streets I Ran," from his new CD, Ringleader of the Tormentors, he has "turned sickness into popular song."

He has sustained that sickness for more than two decades, but this latest offering ranks with his best.

Ringleader-which hits stores on April 4 but is currently available in streaming audio on myspace.com-is marked by many changes in Morrissey's life.

His previous album, 2004's You Are The Quarry, reflected the years he spent living in Los Angeles.

That album opened with "America Is Not The World," an attack on the red, white and blue in which Morrissey told the country where it could stick its hamburgers and included some derogatory references to its leader ("steely blue eyes with no love in them scan the world / and a humorless smile with no warmth within greets the world").

Its partner piece on Ringleader is "I Will See You In Far Off Places." One of Morrissey's hardest-rocking tracks, inflammatory lyrics like "if your god bestows protection upon you / and if the USA doesn't bomb you / I will see you ." are enhanced by the Middle-Eastern-influenced production.

Morrissey-who was recently questioned by the FBI for his anti-Bush statements-was wise enough to vacate the country before releasing that song, trading the smog of L.A. for the class of Rome. Something about la dolce vita must have struck a chord with "Il Mozalini" (his most recent press-prescribed nickname), as he's taken a new approach to love.

Possibly the most stirring track on Ringleader, "Dear God, Please Help Me" finds the singer confessing that there are "explosive kegs / between my legs."

Over maestro Ennio Morricone's sparse but effective orchestration, Morrissey further clarifies that "now I'm spreading your legs / with mine in between," shocking for the famously celibate singer; recently, however, he admitted to NME that his bedroom hasn't been solitary for some time now.

The influence Italia continues on the unfortunate first single, "You Have Killed Me." The lyrics are paint-by-numbers Morrissey: affirmations of another's wrongdoing (the title repeated in the chorus) with a last-minute reversal of feelings ("but I forgive you / always I forgive you").

In the nominally catchy track, he name-checks famous film directors Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti.

Morrissey's lyrics are usually clever and laden with double meanings; the only example of this in "You Have Killed Me" is that he references the directors by their surnames only, and the latter could be a sly reference to Ringleader's producer, Tony Visconti.

A welcome change from Quarry's Jerry Finn, who produced Blink-182 records and overloaded Quarry with unnecessary and distracting synthesized sounds,Visconti is best known for his work with David Bowie, including albums like Station to Station and Low which stand as some of that singer's best.

Attentive Morrissey fans will have high expectations for Visconti and Ringleader; the last time that Morrissey teamed with a Bowie crony, the late Mick Ronson (who played guitar in the Ziggy Stardust era), the result was 1992's Your Arsenal, a mix of glam-rock-stomp and tender ballads, which is arguably his finest solo work.

Visconti leaves his fingerprints all over Ringleader, which certainly isn't a bad thing. His influence is best felt on "In The Future All Is Well," which extrapolates its bass line from T. Rex's "Bang a Gong (Get It On)," also a Visconti production.

Subtle touches of Visconti throughout Ringleader contribute to its success. The addition of a choir of children to "The Youngest Was The Most Loved" adds depth and humor to the song, as a group of prepubescents back Morrissey on the lyric "there is no such thing in life as normal."

Some of the other changes could be attributed to a recent addition to Morrissey's band in the form of guitarist Jesse Tobias. Tobias replaces departing axeman Boz Boorer, who co-wrote one of Morrissey's biggest hits, "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get."

At press time, the full writing credits for Ringleader were not available; the only song that can definitely be attributed to Tobias is "You Have Killed Me."

Judging from the flow of Ringleader, however, Tobias' songs mesh well with those of seasoned Morrissey guitarist Alain Whyte.

As important as Visconti and the guitarists are, the unifying presence of any Morrissey record is Morrissey. His always-distinct voice has weathered and deepened in recent memory, lending it an air of weariness and maturity.

His delivery is matched by his wordplay and attention to detail to the English language.

Thematically, other than the frank sexual discussion in "Dear God, Please Help Me," Morrissey is tackling his usual: life, death and the longing from a lack of love in between. These subjects are tackled best in the seven-minute epic, "Life Is A Pigsty."

Musing on the title, he says, "if you don't know this / then what do you know? / every second of my life I only live for you / and you can shoot me / and you can throw me off a train," echoing the macable humor of the double-decker buses and ten-ton trucks of The Smiths' melancholy classic "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out."

While still in that group, on "Nowhere Fast" Morrissey sang "when I'm lying in my bed / I think about life and I think about death / and neither one particularly appeals to me." Twenty years later, he contradicts that statement by ending Ringleader with "At Last I Am Born."

Blending a thunderous string section with a twangy guitar, he intones "historians note / I am finally born / I once used to chase affection withdrawn / but now I just sit back and yawn."

Dedicated music fans surely see the irony in this; Morrissey has kept a tradition of interesting and intelligent songs alive and awake for a long time, and Ringleader of the Tormentors is no exception.,Bryan O'Toole