Low In High School
Morrissey is back with the release of his eleventh long-player, Low in High School and all in all, it’s a solid outing for the patron saint of vegan hot dogs. Low boasts the strongest collection of tunes, (with the possible exception of 2004’s You Are The Quarry), since 1994’s Vauxhall and I. The songs feature nuanced arrangements, bringing the record a cohesiveness that has oft been missed on Morrissey’s solo outings. Likewise, the return of Morrissey’s concern for personal emotions and home truths of the kitchen sink drama variety is welcome, and these sit comfortably alongside the international politics and societal concerns that have rued him of recent.
Twee first single Spent the Day in Bed was not the most promising sign ahead of the release. Much like the two previous first singles, (World Peace is None of Your Business and I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris), Spent the Day has more in common with a Eurovision entry than a contemporary pop song, and while not a bad tune, a funny little ditty with a wry sense of humour is hardly going to engender great passions amongst its listeners.
Yet any fear raised by Spent the Day is completely blown away by the thunderous drum intro and blast of trumpets of glam-stomping opener My Love I’d Do Anything For You. A tremendous tune, we have not heard Morrissey swagger like this since Your Arsenal. Given the man’s excellence in the genre, not to mention his penchant for the New York Dolls, one can only assume the production of glitter harms animals as a reason for him not glamming things up more from time to time.
The muscular guitar tones and electro keys continue on I Wish You Lonely, Who Will Protect Us From the Police and Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on the Stage. These tunes also swagger with intent and storm along with roaring guitars and a brashness that aides Morrissey’s delivery. The electro-feel on Police offers a new way for Morrisey to release his anger at figures of authority (high court judges may feature in a remix), whilst his use of the third person on Jacky recalls Morrissey as a Smith circa Strangeways.
Power is drawn not just from the guitar though, as demonstrated by the slower In Your Lap, Open Your Legs and Home is A Question Mark, where the instruments and strings are lovingly layered. Open Your Legs is the sound of a man that, though once celebrating celibacy, now accepts the power of the “kegs between his legs,” particularly as he utilised them as material since his ‘return’ in 2004 and ‘that’ autobiography.
The album’s midpoint is the theatrical I Bury the Living. Carried out over two acts, the first enters with 70s-Eno styled noises setting a haunting mood before Morrissey cruelly begins to rip the stripes from the lapels of a common soldier. Mimicking this soldier’s sentiments, Morrissey sings “you cannot blame me, I’m just an innocent soldier, I haven’t a clue what the war is for, do you?” The second act is a reprise, intoning the futility of war, as Morrissey now plays the part of the soldier’s working-class family who wonder “funny how the world goes on, without our John” after the soldier fails to return home. How very cruel and wicked. But effective.
It is Joe Chiccarelli’s second time behind the production desk for Morrissey and he has done a tremendous job. The album goes beyond the usual guitar, bass and drums, utilising a fuller instrumentation that includes synths, strings and horns in a varied and cohesive manner. Then there are the little things that make such a big difference, such as the use of an isolated Pixies style bass as a break between second chorus and third verse and his attentiveness to Morrissey’s ad lib repetitions.
Morrissey’s voice as instrument is one of the most overlooked components on his solo records, but this is something that Chiccarelli is mindful of. When he isolates and raises Morrissey’s “time, do as I wish” bridge on Spent the Day it is easy to imagine the sinner reclining on the pillow next to you. The echo-y treatment of “romance gone wrong” on I Wish You Lonely is set to send daggers through a romantic’s heart, while the cacophony of ‘Exits’ on Jacky is a perfect mix of the sublime and ridiculous that accentuates the song’s meaning.
There is one low point, but at least it’s not bland, just more cringey, as Morrissey attempts to reach out to the youth of today on All the Young People Must Fall in Love. There are handclaps and a singalong (like those of a “bloody protest singer”) and the whole thing sounds like one of those hokey-mid-nineties semi-humorous comedy songs that you used to hear on Triple J.
But overall, we find the man in fine form and good humour, which is a blessed relief to not only those already converted to the church of Morrissey, but also to those who have to bear with the converted.