Morrissey: Provocateur Emeritus

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Videos by American Songwriter

Photo by Sam Rayner

“Spent The Day In Bed,” the leadoff single from Morrissey’s latest album Low In High School, his eleventh LP as a solo artist, advises a temporary retreat from society for those wishing to escape the madness of the modern world. Had Morrissey applied this advice to his own career and let it go fallow in favor of a well-deserved respite, no one would begrudge him; he could easily assume the mantle of alt-rock’s Provocateur Emeritus and let younger artists carry the torch. From his time fronting The Smiths, as influential and enduring as any band from the ’80s, to a solo career that includes ten consecutive Top 10 albums in the U.K., his is a catalog that doesn’t take a back seat to anyone. If the tank of songs that mingle unabashedly romantic sentiment with pointedly political declarations, all delivered in his velvety, wounded croon, was empty, his iconic status would remain unassailable.

How then to explain Low In High School, which climbs yet another career peak? Morrissey’s fearlessness in taking on the powers that be with direct hits rather than glancing blows is as refreshing as it ever was, and he still doesn’t flinch when it comes to expressing opinions that might infuriate a portion of his audience. (Look for “I Bury The Living” especially to ruffle feathers, with its idea that soldiers shouldn’t be excused from culpability simply because they’re following orders.)

But what also distinguishes the songs on the album is his underrated ability to craft melodies that can weaken your knees, especially when his one-of-a-kind vocals are bringing them home. This is also a record that features rhythmic flair that you might not normally associate with him. It’s as if Morrissey doesn’t want his listeners to be soothed into complacency by the old guitar jangle; he wants attention to be paid, and there’s not a song on this collection that doesn’t warrant that kind of attention.

The album actually allows you the listener to decide how you want to imbibe it. For those who like Morrissey the firebrand, he hasn’t softened a bit, as song titles like “The Girl From Tel Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel” and “Who Will Protect Us From The Police?” make clear. Those who like Morrissey the miserabilist in a perpetual state of unapologetic lust and anguished ardor can find plenty of that as well.

And if you have a preconceived notion of what his music is supposed to sound like, Low In High School might just surprise you with the bold sounds it has to offer, including the glam-rock glory of “My Love I’d Do Anything For You,” the sure-footed thump of “All The Young People Fall In Love,” the moody atmospherics of “In Your Lap,” the effortless pop shimmer of “Spent The Day In Bed,” and the high-drama balladry of “Israel,” with ingratiating hooks and luscious melodies being the constants through all the material. In short, this is the kind of album that will thrill the faithful and convert more than a few non-believers willing to give it a spin. And even if you find yourself in disagreement with what he’s saying, you won’t be able to deny how well he says it.

Along those lines, Morrissey has raised hackles lately with his controversial take, delivered in multiple interviews, on the recent spate of high-profile Hollywood sexual harassment cases. When he spoke with American Songwriter recently, he focused mostly on his music, although his comments were still as unfettered as the opinions expressed in his lyrics. Leave it to Morrissey to provoke us, not just with his music, but with his take on it as well.

What makes you decide that it’s time for a new album? Is it a matter of amassing enough songs over a period of time or does something spur you on to get into the studio and record?

I’m of the generation ​that​ consider​s​ studio time to be a great privilege, so I only go in when urgency strikes. I haven’t ever jammed, or messed around in a studio. I don’t want that. If I lose the awe I feel for recording then it won’t work for me. Songs create real meaning for me, and that meaning evaporates if stepping behind a microphone is no longer much of an event. I do​n​’t understand people who have studios in their homes. At what point are they excited?

The songs on Low In High School effortlessly mix the personal and political, but that feels like it’s always been a hallmark of your songwriting. Does that come naturally or is it a conscious thing when you write to strike that balance?

It isn’t conscious, it’s just who I am. I think entertainment should explain reality and not escape it. We have no idea where we c​o​me from or where we go when we die, so why not throw it out for debate? Likewise, loneliness is ​the world’s number one​ problem, so why not debate it? If you consider the great popularity and admiration for poetry and philosophy then we can see how both should work well within pop music because … why not? Why become a part of idiot culture? When you write a song you can say “this is what we ​should​ do,”​ and look at the possibly enormous effects of simply saying that.​

I often think that it is because pop music is so powerful that it is most restricted. I like songwriters who are trying to work out their own lives, and I object to people who very evidently have no emotional necessity to be on a stage​, which is why the X-factory generation is so lethal for music charts. I like people who feel a deep connection to whatever they write.

“Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up On Stage” tells a story of a girl who deals with grief and sorrow by entertaining. Do you feel like that’s a common reason why people get into performing?

You assume Jacky to be a girl​ …​  ​how do you know she isn’t 104 years old? ​Interesting … but, yes, it’s a comment on what most refer to as “performing” even though those with a real necessity to be on stage are not performing at all — they are attempting to survive. We can very easily detect singers who are up there in false spirit, simply because it’s a laugh, or because it might lead to more sex. When true singers sing they automatically look upwards … ​because they are in a hypnotic trance​. True singers raise the pulse in the listener, whereas frauds might find a way into commercial arenas but ​we can see it’s a strictly marketing exercise​​.

Jacky enjoys the idea of theater, but the observer has the final word, and she’s booted offstage. I write how she is lost without an audience “telling her what to do,” and we often forget how we are driven by the audience, and I think this is because whatever you do on a stage, you are asking people to pay money to watch, and whenever people part with money they are instantly suspicious! This is why, as I say, the observer has the final word. So, off goes poor Jacky.

Photo by Monika Stolarska

If I had to characterize these songs, it feels like they take a cynical view of the powers that be but a romantic view of the people living their everyday lives. Do you feel that’s an accurate take, and, if so, does that also reflect how you look at the world?

Yes, it does. I am concerned with social justice​,​ especially for animals​,​ and I despise any form of barbarism. Everything can be reasoned by intelligent persuasion.  Politics is a stage show. You can’t restore law and order by allowing the police to kill whomever they wish — that increases tension because we all know it’s wrong, and when the police who kill are repeatedly exonerated by their own police commission​ers​ we still know it’s wrong. So what then?​ 

Some of these songs feel like they were built from the rhythm up? I’m thinking specifically of the stomp-clap beat of “All The Young People Must Fall In Love.” Was that kind of rhythmic flair an emphasis for you this time around?

You are correct! We wanted to construct a song that sounded almost as if it were ​moving​ through the studio … I do not like the word “protesters” because in its modern meaning it is dismissive and belittling. News would take on a different meaning if “the people” rightly replaced “the protestors.” Anyway, “All The Young People Must Fall In Love” aimed to be the sound of liberators walking through the town, occasionally the guitar would play and then STOP, suddenly the drums would crash in and then STOP. There is no continuous playing by any instrument, as if the brain function keeps switching, as if people are picking up instruments and then putting them down … sometimes I sing, sometimes I hum … I hadn’t ever heard of a song where the drum kit absolutely stops playing on six occasions. Usually when musicians play they … continue until the final flicker.

In general, the music is really striking on these songs. Can you talk a little bit about the recording process, in terms of who you worked with and how this record was put together? Was there anything markedly different about this album than the way you’ve worked in the past?

We are very quick. For example, “All The Young People Must Fall In Love” was devised and recorded within two hours, and then we recorded “The Girl From Tel-Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel.” At mid-day, neither song existed, and by 7 p.m. both had been recorded. As a collective, we all see and hear the same thing, and this is very exciting because listeners want to decide as soon as possible what a song means, and we do too. I have always done the vocal at the last minute — nothing is ever rehearsed. I have done this since 1983. Nobody knows what or how I will sing, and in many cases we use the first guide vocal. I like this because in the first place I will only ever sing a song if I am hypnotized by it — I can never sing “Happy Birthday” to you to anyone — and there is such a daring seduction in keeping the words and melody to yourself until the 14th hour when everyone’s patience is at an end, so therefore, when it strikes correctly, the satisfaction is an enormous rush and whatever you’ve done is up there with prayer​.​ It’s thrilling. We do not ever rehearse, and we work fantastically well together.

Listening to “Israel,” I was really struck by the beauty of the song itself before even really delving into the lyrics and what they mean. Do you feel like your melodic abilities as a songwriter sometimes get overlooked because of your willingness to make bold stands with your lyrics?

I don’t think my voice is ever commented upon! I am not considered as a vocalist, and although I deliberate intensely on vocal melody it is also never remarked upon. Well, as a matter of fact, most only ever say exactly the same things about me.

I was listening to the college station on Sirius radio and heard “Spent The Day In Bed” on a countdown of their most downloadable songs. Is it gratifying to know that the audience, even as kids age out of it and other kids step in to fill the void, has stayed with you?

Oh yes. Certainly in Central and South America and Eastern Europe the audiences are very young, and many are children, and this indicates so much. Singing is as much a form of poetry as written words, and even though I am usually dismissed by the commercial pop arenas, I must be saying what many are thinking otherwise I wouldn’t be still here. In fact, you must say things that people want to say themselves! That’s when the song strikes! In a 2017 where freedom of speech has been completely eroded, my name ​is often mentioned​ with a quiver of paranoia. But, so what. Songs are what we leave behind, and singing live is incredible because lots of people feel the same euphoria at the same time, and I can see people becoming alive when I sing certain songs, and this feeling is worth more than anyone who criticizes it could ​dare to​ imagine.

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