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Morrissey - Ringleader of the Tormentors (Sanctuary)

17 April 2006

Ringleader of the Tormentors arrives just two years after MORRISSEY released his comeback LP You are the Quarry, which broke a seven-year dry spell since his previous album Maladjusted.

Quarry was a bit hit or miss in my opinion but because Morrissey had been out of the limelight for so long an abundance of goodwill rolled his way, which could only have improved reviews. The record does have some standouts, particularly the storming single “Irish Blood English Heart” and “How Could Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel.”

However, Ringleader is more consistently accomplished even as it has fewer peaks and valleys. It’s easy to initially listen to Ringleader, even a few times, and feel underwhelmed.

But over several plays, the album’s many strengths reveal themselves more readily. Morrissey’s voice is in fine shape and producer TONY VISCONTI prominently displays MATT CHAMBERLAIN’s solid drumming. Visconti also deftly weaves in orchestral touches throughout the record.

Much is the same on Ringleader as in Morrissey’s past work: an obsession with love, death, hope, and anguish. But much is different—a sense of wellbeing shines through some of the songs. We hear Middle Eastern influences on the album opener “I Will See You in Far Off Places,” as well as an Italian children’s choir on a few songs.

There are some sequencing issues on Ringleader, though. The album’s second song, the slow “Dear God Please Help Me,” should have been placed later on the record. In the number two slot, the tune stalls the album’s momentum.

That said, the next track, “You Have Killed Me” is a great single. And the song following it, “The Youngest Was the Most Loved,” also is one of the album’s best. Especially powerful is the sound of the children’s choir repeating “there is no such thing in life as normal.”

“The Father Who Must be Killed” has an irritating and plodding chorus but the verse works better. The children’s choir belts sings with gusto “And the Father who must be killed…” I could see the following dialogue played out in Italy, in house after house.

Papa: “Silvio what did you sing today with Morrissey?”

Silvio: “The father must be killed.”

“Life is a Pigsty,” the album’s centerpiece at over seven minutes, oozes atmosphere from the get-go, especially in the first third of the song.

“On the Streets I Ran” smartly builds tension at the opening and is one of the album’s strongest upbeat numbers. It features great guitar lines and a powerful keyboard sound that is permeates the song. It also sports some winning lyrics: “Here, everybody’s friendly but nobody’s friends,” which, ironically, is how a friend of mine once described L.A.

Most importantly, Morrissey seems rejuvenated and optimistic now that he has moved to Rome from L.A. The ex-Mancunian appears to have found peace in his personal life. This is easy to see in his lyrics, which are more direct and economical than in the past. However that is one of my small criticisms of Morrissey’s latest albums. Journalists are trained to use as few words as possible when writing. But in Morrissey’s recent lyrics, his blunt language sometimes waters down the power of his words.

Lyrics that used to beguile, tease, and titillate are increasingly spelled out in a heavy-handed manner: “I see the world. It makes me puke…” “There are explosive kegs between my legs…” And from Quarry, “America, it brought you the hamburger. America, you know where you can shove your hamburger.”

That isn’t to say that Morrissey can’t still turn a good lyric. But in much of his earlier work, the words were as much the star as his music and voice; I’m not sure this is the case anymore.