Music Reviews

Death, Taxes, Below-Average Morrissey Albums

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Genre: Post-Smiths Pop

Favorite Tracks: “Jim Jim Falls,” “What Kind of People Live In These Houses,” “Darling, I Hug A Pillow”

I love Morrissey.

I do not love everything that he says in the press. I certainly do not love all of his solo material.

But I love Morrissey.

I have a Funko Pop of Smiths-era Moz at my work desk, and as I press play to begin my fifth listen of his latest LP, I AM NOT A DOG ON A CHAIN, I find myself staring into the figure’s big, shiny, lifeless eyes and asking aloud: “Goddamn it Morrissey. Why?

One of the most difficult things about covering a Morrissey album in the year 2020 is sticking to the music. It’s cool to hate Morrissey, just ask Monorail Music in Glasgow. Oftentimes it seems that a decent amount of the press is ready to shit on one of his records before they’ve heard it, releasing reviews that list off every questionable thing he’s done over the past 20 years without really addressing the man’s music. This is not presented as a defense of any Morrissey’s politics (far from it). The man is an idiot. But I’m here to talk about the record.

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I AM NOT A DOG ON A CHAIN is no different than any of Morrissey’s albums released over the past 15 years; it’s not terrible, but it is unremarkable. The album title is clearly meant to be a statement about how he will not censor himself to appease the aforementioned press that has always been after him, his self-righteous battle explored in the title track where he claims that he does “not read newspapers / they are troublemakers” and “I raise my voice / I have no choice.” Morrissey may be barking, but it’s of no consequence. No chain is required here.

One of the biggest issues that has plagued Morrissey’s solo albums in recent years is the band of bland yes-men that he chooses to surround himself with, particularly his main collaborators, guitarist Jesse Tobias and keyboardist Gustavo Manzur. Tobias and Manzur seem to be in an eternal competition to see who can generate the most stock rock-sounding music for Morrissey to croon over instead of generating anything mildly interesting or challenging. Tobias gets the bulk of the writing credit this time around, while Morrissey’s longest-lasting collaborator Boz Boorer brings nothing to the table. Manzur’s three offerings are forgettable, the exception being “The Truth About Ruth,” which sounds like background music to be played in the world’s worst Olive Garden—you will never forget the three-minutes-and-45-seconds of your life you lost listening to it. Tobias finds mild success on album opener “Jim Jim Falls,” and the almost-Smiths-y “What Kind of People Live In These Houses,” but nowhere else.

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It would not, however, be fair to blame all of I AM NOT A DOG ON A CHAIN’s failings on Morrissey’s band. As uninspired as the musical foundations for most of the songs may be, there are also Morrissey’s lyrics. Honestly, watching Moz’s lyrical offerings decay over the years has been more painful than dealing with the shortcomings of the musicians he brought on who were always meant to be hired guns. It’s understandable that the chances of Morrissey finding another guitarist with the numerous gifts of Johnny Marr were going to be few and far between, but surely the man can still wield the pen with the wit and vigor of his glory days, right? Unfortunately, that has not the case, and if you’ve followed Morrissey’s solo career, you’re most likely aware that it has been like this for quite a while.

There are moments of a classic Morrissey-isms sprinkled throughout the record: the intentionally bad grammar during the verses of “Jim Jim Falls,” the flippant humor of “What Kind of People Live In These Houses,” and the endearing, relatable hopelessness presented in “Darling, I Hug A Pillow” all exhibit shades of the Morrissey that won over masses of miserable misfits in the past. At the end of the day, though, they come off as neutered attempts at recreating the poetic offerings of his previous work, and are lauded only because they are good for a latter-day Morrissey release.

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I AM NOT A DOG ON A CHAIN fits the mold cast by every solo Morrissey album since 2004’s YOU ARE THE QUARRY. It has a few solid tracks that are surrounded by filler that Morrissey insists are the strongest songs he’s written to date. Upon announcing the album, he described the album as “the very best of me… too good to be true… too true to be good…,” anticipating the scrutiny he always faces due to the fact that he was the frontman of one of the most beloved bands of all time. Maybe it’s unfair that his solo work will always be compared to what he did with the Smiths, but that is what it is. He must be his own biggest fan. He doubles down against the warranted mediocre reviews by building his live sets around his post-2000 discography and pushing out the material that drew in the massive fan base that allow him to keep releasing lackluster work.

Maybe the fans are part of the problem. The album was number one on Amazon and iTunes on its release day. We keep listening. We keep going to the shows—even if they are in support of a totally bonkers cover album that nobody wanted. We keep going because maybe he will play “Everyday is Like Sunday” or “How Soon is Now” to break up the block of songs we don’t care about. We keep listening because we trudge through albums like I AM NOT A DOG ON A CHAIN knowing we can go put on the Smiths’ self-titled record or YOUR ARSENAL and be reminded of what he was once capable of and be satisfied. I’m not sure if this process can last forever, but for now, I guess it works fine. Again, we’re part of the problem.

Jake Mazon
Jake Mazon is the host of The Final Sound radio program on VPN, as well as a co-host on THE REAL ROCKER THEATER and WHAT'S YOUR RECORD? podcasts. There's a really good chance that he's already read the new article about what offensive thing Morrissey said this week, so please stop sending him the links.

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