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An Italian Job,
This review is from: Ringleader Of The Tormentors (Audio CD)
After several years then of self-imposed exile, 2004's "You Are the Quarry" was very well received. However, the suspicion was that much of this acclaim was really just celebrating Moz being back at all, so long as the album did not prove to be a total turkey. His second "comeback" album was always going to be the acid test - could The Miserable One cut it on the merits of his music alone?
"You Are the Quarry" allowed Morrissey to work through any number of pent-up issues and frustrations - anger with America, his despisement of authority figures, and his bitterness towards former Smiths' drummer Mike Joyce being prime among them. This has given Morrissey the freedom to explore once more the themes that have made him famous - love, death, loneliness, and generally being at odds with the world. Indeed, "Life is a Pigsty", which is reminiscent of W.B. Yeats' poem "The Circus Animals' Desertion" ("What can I but enumerate old themes"), notes in its opening lines that:
It's the same old S.O.S. /
But with brand new broken fortunes /
And once again I turn to you /
Once again I do I turn to you /
In keeping with any vintage work of the maestro, the album is marvellously ambiguous - expectations of his own death clash with being born, songs of love and lust contradict songs of despair at being alone. Much attention has been given to explicit lines such as "there are explosive kegs between my legs", "now I'm spreading your legs with mine in-between", and "I entered nothing and nothing entered me" from an artist popularised as being celibate. While this may be new ground in terms of Moz's lyrical expression, to distill just this from the album would be the equivalent of reducing "Waiting for Godot" down to being a two-act play where one of the actors drops his pants.
Key aspects of this album are that it has been produced by legendary producer Tony Visconti (T-Rex, Bowie, Thin Lizzy, U2, Stranglers, Mercury Rev...) and that it was recorded in Rome. Indeed, the Italian influences on this album are manifest, not least on the stirring "Dear God, Please Help Me". This song has Morrissey at possibly his most plaintively evocative, supported by a miminalist strings arrangement scored by the prolific film score composer, Ennio Morricone ("The Good, The Bad & The Ugly", "A Fistful of Dollars", "Once Upon A Time in the West", "The Untouchables", "The Mission"...). It is a haunting song, ending in Bono-esque fashion with perhaps the greatest clue as to what is really Morrissey's true state of mind:
And now I am walking through Rome /
And there is no room to move /
But the heart feels free /
The heart feels free /
The heart feels free /
But the heart... feels free
Continuing the Italian theme, the poet, writer, and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini and his 1960 film "Accattone" are namechecked on "You Have Killed Me", the first single off the album. Pasolini was both acclaimed and criticised for his political and sexually frank poetry. Accattone was a character who lived his life in the underbelly of Rome - a pimp and a thief, who is both a charismatic and tragic figure. No wonder Morrissey feels at home in Rome!
However, is there any classic Morrissey on this album? Hopefully, titles like "The Father Who Must Be KIlled" and "Life is a Pigsty" answer that! The best example though probably is "The Youngest Was the Most Loved", the second single off the album, which begins:
The youngest was the most loved /
The youngest was the shielded /
We kept him from the world's glare /
And he turned into a killer
The chorus to this song is "there is no such thing in life as normal", which is repeatedly sung by Moz with the help of a children's choir. Their fragile voices are jarring the first time you hear them. However, it does add a clever twist to the line.
There is more acerbic wit on "The Father Who Must be Killed":
And the father who must be killed /
Is a step-father but nonetheless /
The way he chews his food /
Rips right through your senses /
Loneliness is the other prevalent theme on this album with "I'll Never Be Anybody's Hero" contrasting sharply with the conclusion of many from listening to "Dear God, Please Help Me" or "To Me You Are a Work of Art" that Morrissey has turned a corner in his lovelife:
Things I've heard and I've seen /
And I've felt and I've been /
Tell me I'll never be anybody's lover now /
It begins in the heart /
And it hurts when it's true /
It only hurts because it's true
Indeed, Moz is at his best when he is ambiguous and contradictory and his songs will always mock those who try to glean too much autobiographical content from them. For as he says on "On the Streets I Ran", he has made a career out of turning sickness into popular song.
To answer the question though posed at the start, this album cuts like a knife through butter. For sure, some of the songs do not have the best lyrics that Morrissey has ever written and there are times when Visconti's production seems to overly dominate Morrissey's voice (e.g. "I Will See You in Far-Off Places"). However, such is the intelligence with which this album is crafted, it requires thought and effort to appreciate how much it has to offer. After all, Rome was not built in a day...