This year has already seen some big-league released and dramatic presentations. Take Robert Plant’s Carry Fire: an astonishing reminder why the former Led Zeppelin man can easily detach from his band days and prove he is one of the finest solo artists in the country. In the world of Pop; Lorde and Taylor Swift have released critically-acclaimed and popular works – the former’s success less surprising; the latter’s quality refreshing and logic-defying. That might be cruelty aimed at Taylor Swift but one does not really expect a mainstream Pop artist to produce material that carries depth and substance. In many ways, Morrissey is the antithesis: the grumpy granddad that stands outside the circle and throws bread at the ducks – aggrieved at the popular quack and mindless charm. That might sound like cruelty aimed at ducks but, when it comes to the former Smiths lead, his disgruntled mindset and imprisoned worry-lines have been forming since his early days in music. We all know what to expect with Morrissey but, when it comes to his latest album, that anger and gruffness have been turned up past the limits of normal tolerance – maybe a little too much for a delicate disposition to handle!
Those new to Morrissey’s solo work might find Low in High School a bit of a heavy meal: those familiar with his catalogue will connect with the sort of muscular swagger and cutting bite his finest albums possess – from the chomp-and-swing of Your Arsenal (1994) through to semi-modern gems like You Are the Quarry (2004). Morrissey’s previous album, 2014’s World Peace Is None of Your Business, was met with acclaim but few were blown away – commentating on the flashes of brilliance; bemoaning the lack of real consistency and evolution. Three years after his last release; here is the pumped-up and snarling, Low in High School. Part of Morrissey’s charm is his role as the voice-box and provocative rebellion that sticks his finger up at the monarchy and tells it like it is. Lines like “Society’s hell/you need me, just like I need you” (‘My Love, I’d Do Anything for You’) distils the ethos and aims of the album. Low in High School is a contradictory record that looks at isolation and disenfranchisement; the yearn for common voice and understanding – wanting to be part of a crowd that is understood; content to remain in his solitary and lonely groove. The aforementioned ‘My Love, I’d Do Anything for You’ starts with wailing, far-off voices before swaggering into the bar with a cool-as-shit strut and wink. Moz steps to the microphone and connects with the hip-snaking swing of the track. The composition marries the meaty intensity of a modern James Bond theme with an elegant passion – even if the lyrics trip down a darker path.
My conflict regarding Low in High School concerns the composition/vocals and lyrics. If the opener wins you with its indelible score and career-best vocal display: the lyrics are part of a suffocating and aggressive template that rarely introduces any light relief. ‘I Wish You Lonely’ fizzes and splutters out of the speakers; our hero wishes the subject loneliness and time in his (Morrissey’s) shoes – so they can see what he goes through. Percussion, right through the album, is stunning; guitars shimmer and claw; the composition and vocals interweave and conspire with glee. ‘Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on the Stage’ takes the listener back to Morrissey’s early career. Its vivid and immersive lyrics cast a spunky and defiant heroine – past her better days, perhaps – on a platform where she can wow and court attention. It is a highlight on the album that creates more of a grin – rather than cause the listener to reflect and gnash. ‘Spent the Day in Bed’ is, for me, the Album Standout. It is the one song that manages to balance a glass-half-empty attitude whilst providing memorability and glee. It is a classic slice of Morrissey and a song that shows, even this many years down the line, the old master is as fertile and assured as ever. ‘In Your Lap’ has atmosphere and elegance, framing Morrissey’s voice in a calmer and more refined setting – even if the song does not last in the mind for too long. Low in High School has variation, for sure, but puts most of its finer moments in the first-half.
‘All the Young People Must Fall in Love’ has a quirk and unexpected Folk/pastoral thud – a flavour of Led Zeppelin III in the mix – but is a song that, for all its endeavour, does not create a huge amount of interest. It seems Low in High School’s strengths come when the composition is hot and addicting; the lyrics instilled with undercurrents of wit and social commentary – ‘All the Young People Must Fall in Love’ aims to hit the sense but never quite fulfils that ambition. ‘When You Open Your Legs’ fascinates with its score which, in the opening moments, puts one in mind of a bullfight. The Spanish horns and Flamenco chicanery is a wonderful touch. It is a shame that side of the composition does not come on heavy: it blasts in and retreats; seeming disjointed and teasing. ‘Israel’ is a stirring and haunted swansong which provides plenty of conflict and appeal. From its tender pianos to thunder-rush blasts; it is a song that proves, when Morrissey is in his wheelhouse, there is nobody in the world like him.
Low in High School has moments of brilliance that, like previous albums, are balanced by filler and overt negativity. One can hardly be surprised by the darkness – but Morrissey’s best albums have always been salvaged and augmented by his deft humour and playful phrasing. Here, we find plenty of memorable lines but there is too much anger and doom – without it being channelled into something constructive, inspiring and engaging. It is not a classic offering from the northern icon: it does possess enough brilliant moments to please the loyal and ardent fan-base. It is a credit to Morrissey’s band that so many of the songs endure and elate. The compositions are largely wonderful and fleck their muscles with impressive ease – able to open their heart when required. Maybe it is not as good as one would expect from Morrissey…but there are incredible songs – ‘Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on the Stage’ and ‘Spent the Day in Bed’ among them – that makes Morrissey’s eleventh solo outing worthy of focus. Maybe, then, it is what we expect from the legendary miserableist: some misfires and that caustic spit; strong tunes and brilliant moments that remind us why he is so beloved. Maybe it will take a few more listens but, for me, Low in High School will take a little while before its charms get out of its bed – and fully slap me in the face!