Low in High School, Morrissey’s 11th studio album, is just as outspoken as we’ve come to expect from the beloved, but beguiling former Smiths frontman. But even in a time of political unrest, April Clare Welsh finds his candor teeters on snarling and cruel to the point of apathy.
Morrissey has returned after three years with “rage in his blood and endless hooks” to write his most political album to date. The legendary wit that fed us vaudevillian one-liners and poignant vignettes about vicars in tutus and lonely British seaside towns has been eclipsed in recent times by a bile-fueled troll who delights in needless provocation. This new LP, Low in High School, consolidates his hatred into a no-holds-barred tirade. It’s hard to be authentic in an age when political albums are ten-a-penny, but Morrissey at least has conviction, in spite of his increasingly problematic behavior.
The former Smiths frontman has always taken an anti-authority stance and on Low in High School wears his anarchy like a badge of honor. The album’s cover comprises an image of a young boy holding an axe in one hand and a sign saying, “axe the monarchy,” while its contents set about “chastising political figures” and “questioning authority.” Topics include police brutality in Venezuela, the Israel-Palestine conflict and the anti-war movement, all of which would make for excellent fodder should Morrissey’s snideness not prevail.
Low in High School gets off to a good start with opener ‘My Love, I’d Do Anything For You’, a blustering bugle call hinged on military drums that serves to wake up the listener to the dangers of fake news and tabloid sensationalism: “Teach your kids to recognize and despise all the propaganda / Filtered down by the dead echelons mainstream media.” Morrissey takes aim at the “monarchy! oligarch! head of state! potentate!” on the powers-that-be-bashing ‘I Wish You Lonely’, but his cruelty begins to show in his depiction of dead soldiers as “fools.”
He goes too far in ‘I Bury The Living’, a cinematic anti-war song that mixes electro-punk and Tropicália to make one most interesting turns on the album that is totally undone by its pettiness. Taking pleasure in the death of a soldier and his grieving mother is just cruel, whatever your take is on war and Morrissey’s lack of empathy can be quite jarring.
‘Spent The Day In Bed’ – the first tweet sent from Morrissey’s newly opened Twitter account and the first single from the album – quickly escalates into infantile parody, urging willful ignorance of the world around us. “Stop watching the news / Because the news contrives to frighten you / To make you feel small and alone / To make you feel that your mind isn’t your own,” sings Moz, while boasting: “I spent the day in bed / as the workers stay enslaved.” Millionaires like Morrissey can afford to take a duvet day whenever they wish.
There are positive moments in the refreshingly self-aware ‘Jackie’s Only Happy When She’s Up On The Stage’, which takes its cue from Morrissey’s 1994 masterpiece Vauxhall and I in its sweeping orchestral crescendoes. It also offers one of the pithiest observations on the album: “This country is making me sick.” ‘Home Is A Question Mark’ takes from the gene pool of Vauxhall and I’s lush, maudlin balladry, too, although it’s not so much a meditation on mortality as it is a political treatise.
However, some of the messages on Low in High School feel confused, incomplete or childish. ‘In Your Lap’ makes an introductory reference to the Arab Spring but fails to explore it any further, while the klezmer-tinged ‘The Girl From Tel-Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel’ offers an over simplified reading of the Middle East conflict that states: “And the land weeps oil / The land weeps oil / What do you think all these conflicts are for?” As well as being reductive, the track is reactionary and full of Morrissey’s tone-deaf cultural stereotyping (“The American way displayed proudly / Is to show lots of teeth and talk loudly”) belonging to a bygone era.
Morrissey has a gift for language and candor that shows no signs of diminishing, but Low in High School can be snarling and cruel to the point of apathy. He’s seen his fanbase shrivel in recent years and this explosive assault guarantees that after the dust has settled, only the hardiest devotees will be left standing.
April Clare Welsh is a news writer at FACT. Find her on Twitter.