Stephen Morrissey has had quite a career. Morrissey, affectionately known as Moz, was the frontman for one of the seminal indie rock bands of the 1980’s – The Smiths. In the course of roughly five years, Morrissey, guitarist Johnny Marr and company created four albums of jangly, and at times morbid, college rock. Their creative apex, “The Queen is Dead,” often gets mentioned by critics as one of the most influential and best albums of the past 20 years. Alas, this masterpiece was released in 1986. Morrissey has had an up and down solo career since breaking up The Smiths in 1987. Two albums into his “comeback,” “Ringleader of the Tormentors” strives to prove that Morrissey is culturally relevant in an age of ever increasing instant gratification.
Morrissey sounds as confident as ever, and some might point to the fact that “Ringleader of the Tormentors” is produced by the able hands and receptive ear of Tony Visconti, who co-produced the entire Berlin Trilogy of David Bowie albums – “Low,” “Heroes” and “Lodger.” (Little known fact: Visconti was approached to produce “The Queen is Dead,” but for reasons lost “to the fogginess of time,” Morrissey and Marr wound up helming production.) Others may point out the fact that Morrissey seems to be reinvigorated by recording in Rome. Like Los Angeles before it, Rome now serves as Morrissey’s creative muse. The city has added facets not previously associated with Morrissey and his music. In other areas, the subjects that Morrissey trades in – love and death – are imbued with new elements and finer ripples.
The first track, “I Will See You in Far Off Places,” gradually builds as the back beat counts off on cymbals. Morrissey howls “Why?” as the tension builds. Michael Farrell’s muted trumpet matches Moz’s impassioned nonsense at the end. Follow-up “Dear God Please Help me” begins as if Jens Lekman is at the piano. Morrissey’s emotive fey tenor shows that it continues to age gracefully. Ennio Morricone, yes, the man behind much of the excellent music in spaghetti westerns including “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” and “For a Few Dollars More,” adds moving string arrangements to an already stellar composition. Lead single “You Have Killed me” sounds as if it were a companion piece to the lead single of 2004’s “You Are the Quarry” (the album with the incredible photo of a pinstriped Moz clutching a Tommy gun.) “I entered nothing/and nothing entered me” feels as if it is a lyrical revelation still fresh even after possibly being explored vigorously by all of Morrissey’s other work. In a climatic turn, Morrissey assuages forgiveness to an unknown assailant – perhaps a lover or even God himself.
Morrissey employs a children’s choir in fast-paced tracks such as “The Youngest Was the Most Loved.”
It is a marvel to consider how well The Pope of Mope and his theatrics mesh with the aforementioned guitars and a piano as well, especially in this song. The first half of the album concludes with another contribution from the choir, entitled “The Father Who Must be Killed.”
While the first six tracks are first rate material, the emotional catharsis of the album heads the “B side.” “Life is a Pigsty” offers muted keyboard lines combining with falling rain and strong bass work. The song feels made for the night and its pleading nature demands attention. The song surpasses anything found on The Dears’ 2003 release “No Cities Left,” which certainly knows its way around the Morrissey discography. (Frontman Murray Lightburn is a known fan of The Smiths and Morrissey in particular.)
The rest of the songs mirror the aforementioned themes of love and death, devotion and rejection. Titles such as “I’ll Never be Anybody’s Hero Now,” “To Me You Are a Work of Art,” and “I Just Want to See the Boy Happy” (perhaps a bit unfairly) tell the all-too-familiar tales that the cult of Morrissey have enjoyed for roughly a generation. Yet this album is worth checking out, maybe not as much as a Smiths’ singles compilation for novices (“Louder Than Bombs,” anyone?)
“Ringleader of the Tormentors” is a first rate addition into the Morrissey oeuvre. While he may not garner friends in high places (what with frequently calling out the governments of the U.K. and the U.S.), he has what many artists could only imagine in an age of recycled posturing. He has longevity and maintains relevance well into the 21st century. Album closer “At Last I am Born” insinuates new territory that Morrissey needs to explore, new cities to inhabit and new music to create. He proves that there is a light that never goes out.