It’s hip to feel utter disdain for Morrissey these days, especially if you were once a fan. Critical response to his recent work has therefore largely been confined within the context of such sentiment. The once harmlessly dubbed ‘Pope of Mope’ was branded “indefensibly racist” the other day and is accused by NME and The Guardian of mocking the grieving parents of dead soldiers on new track, I Bury the Living. Most of us expect the worst from Morrissey in 2017; but Low In High School – his eleventh solo album, recorded at legendary composer Ennio Morricone’s studios in Rome – demonstrates precisely why we should never write him off.
Ironically, highlighting the ills of media outlets is one of the record’s primary goals from the opening line: “teach your kids to recognise and despise all the propaganda, filtered down by the dead echelon’s mainstream media”. This reflects a wider theme of mistrusting the powerful which permeates Low In High School, as its unreserved creator takes aim at music moguls, warmongers and police brutality. Such contemporary issues are tackled against a backdrop of Morrissey’s own classic brand of iconoclasm; namely, anti-monarchic and pro-animal rights ideals.
At its best, this demonstrates how the lyricist’s famed acerbic wit is as sharp as ever:
Tombs are full of fools who gave their life upon command of monarchy, oligarch, head of state, potentate and now never coming back / I wish you lonely like the last tracked humpback whale chased by gunships from Bergen, but never giving in… (I Wish You Lonely)
Elsewhere, the theatrical Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on the Stage threatens to steal the show. Morrissey assumes the role of a paranoid actress thirsty for approval in the harsh existence beyond the stage; its menacing bass and dark undertones suggestive of the Orwellian motifs expanded upon on the more overt (but lesser for it) Who Will Protect Us From the Police?
The politically incorrect and sonically expansive I Bury the Living (clocking in at 7:25) is perhaps the album’s most memorable cut. Taking its title from the 1958 B-movie, it is an unapologetically contemptuous interpretation of the actions of soldiers who wrongfully perceive themselves to be peace-making heroes.
It morphs from cinematic horror-march to near-Smiths perfection as, backed solely by haunting, melodic guitar, Morrissey moves on from the now deceased soldier as he introduces a heartbroken parent with the refrain “funny how the war goes on without our John”. Bizarrely condemned as making a mockery of such grief, there is greater scope to view this as Morrissey employing the conventions of kitchen sink realism that so defined the bittersweet appeal of his timeless early work. The soldier is representative of the angry young male archetype prevalent in 50s kitchen sink dramas, while the parent’s weeping words in the second act are a close to home reminder of working class disaffection.
Give me an order, I’ll blow up a border / give me an order and I’ll blow up your daughter… (I Bury the Living)
Weaker tracks include In Your Lap and When You Open Your Legs, while emotive ballad Home Is a Question Mark displays Morrissey’s vocals at their most endearing. Middle Eastern novelty song The Girl From Tel-Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel is an eclectic charmer. Yet Israel is less epic closer than it is a sigh of relief. A passionate but effectively throwaway ode to the region’s citizens rather than the nation state – “I can’t answer for what armies do, they are not you” – it narrowly escapes the criticism of being hypocritical on a record that sets its stall out as being firmly opposed to systematic repression and terror.
But would it really be Morrissey if it wasn’t intensely flirting with controversy?
Buy Low In High School from your local, independent record store.