❉ Perhaps the’real’ title of this album should be: Morrissey Doesn’t Give A Fuck What You Think.
This album has the wrong title. Low In High School, lame pun that it is, is nowhere near appropriate for the content. The real title should be Morrissey Doesn’t Give a Fuck. That far more accurately describes what we’ve got here with the man’s 11th solo album. At this stage in the game, with the world in the state it is, Morrissey has decided to unleash a political album. There is precedent (America Is Not The World, English Blood, Irish Heart, World Peace Is None Of Your Business etc) but this time many of the songs deal with the current State of Things: the media, the police, war, the Middle East – big, big subjects. Serious subjects. Newsnight territory. And how does he tackle these weighty themes? Head-on, with simplicity, even naivety, which is admittedly somewhat embarrassing at times. We get diatribes against the soldiery, love letters to Israel and portentous rants against the police state. But don’t worry, the usual Morrissey concerns of himself, love, sex, and himself, are also fully in place.
I’ve always admired the way Morrissey absolutely refuses to compromise or explain himself. He sticks by his views and stands unshakeably by his principles. Most prominently, his resolutely hardline stance on animal rights has never varied. Meat was murder in 1985 and 30 years on still is. Morrissey recently criticised no less than David Attenborough over his terminology on documentaries including Blue Planet and Planet Earth. Speaking to The Sunday Times he said: ‘I don’t know about Attenborough’s regard for animals. He often uses terms like ‘seafood’ and there’s no such thing. It’s sea life, and he talks about ‘wildlife’ and it’s free life. Animals are not wild simply because we pathetic humans haven’t shoved them in a cage, so his terminology is often up the pole.’ Attenborough’s fans responded by calling him a ‘twat’ and an ‘absolute clown.’ But… Morrissey he has a point, doesn’t he? Then perhaps my ‘real’ title for this album is wrong, because Morrissey certainly, and passionately, does give a fuck, about a great many things.
What Morrissey doesn’t give a fuck about is what you think. So perhaps that ‘real’ title should be: Morrissey Doesn’t Give A Fuck What You Think. A trifle unwieldy, perhaps, so Low In High School it is. But perhaps that title is cleverer than it first appears. Perhaps it’s an exhortation to schoolkids to moo like cows in class, thus disrupting lessons. Subversive stuff!
This album, and Morrissey, have been roundly slated for its crass lyrics and naive views. But who else, of Morrissey’s status – and fuck it, the man has status, he’s a legend, up there with Madonna and Jacko – who else is even singing about politics these days? No-one. I’ll probably be presented with a massive list in the comments, and if I am wrong, then great. But I don’t think that I am. Look, this album begins with the statement:
Teach your kids to recognize and despise all the propaganda
Filtered down by the dead echelons’ mainstream media
for God’s sake! This sounds nothing like Morrissey, it sound like some bizarre agit-punk from the mid-80’s. But it’s not, it’s Morrissey, getting righteously angry with the state of the world, stirring things up and urging revolution. This first track, My Love I Would Do Anything For You, fairly blasts out of the speakers, an enormous, brassy flounce of a thing. It’s an arresting, even stunning opener. Moz’s vocals have never sounded better, and he can still hit the high notes.
The next track, I Wish You Lonely (has there ever been a more typically Morrissey title?) is a ‘walk a mile in my shoes’ song a la Why Don’t You Find Out For Yourself? Musically it recalls Last Of The International Playboys, especially the beginning, which is almost identical. Morrissey sings, ‘Think of yourself only, of everything you demand, you want and you need, and to hell, to hell with everybody else.’ I was right, Morrissey Doesn’t Give A Fuck. The line ‘Tombs are full of fools who gave their life upon command’ presages the theme of a later track.
Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up On Stage is a sad tale of a luvvie who only feels alive when she’s acting. It builds to a frankly terrifying crescendo with Morrissey yelling ‘Everybody’s running for the exit! The exit!’ over a thunderous backdrop.
Home Is A Question Mark is the best track on the album – and, notably, it’s nothing to do with politics. Morrissey once sang, ‘I would love to go back to the old house, but I never will,’ and this song confirms that. Here Morrissey sings about travelling and searching for something, or someone, and losing sight of one’s roots. ‘Home, is it just a word. or is it something you, carry within you. I’m happy just to be here’, he sings, and the song really soars.
I’ll say at this point that Morrissey’s voice has rarely sounded better than on this album, Powerful, strong, passionate, he sounds wonderful.
Spent The Day In Bed, with its faint air of Lennon-style non-violent protests, is the most familiar track here and a spry little number. I’m not sure if the ‘no bus, no boss, no rain no train’ bit is clever or dumb, but us working stiffs can surely identify with it. Especially at this time of the year, when spending an entire day in bed seems like an irresistible temptation.
The longest track on the album, and by far the most controversial, is I Bury The Living, in which Morrissey, against a brutal and harsh musical backdrop, takes on the persona of a social outcast signing up for armed service and glorifying in killing for honour. A view completely at odds with the modern image of the soldier as hero, as peacemaker. Morrissey, contrarian to the core, takes the opposite view, and has been roundly lambasted for doing so. His lyrics, like many on the album, seem to be at complete odds with what ‘the majority’ think or what the media line is. It’s as if it’s become almost illegal to have any opinion other than the most obvious and populist. Many have pointed out that a more fitting target would be the people who send soldiers into wars, not the soldiers themselves, and it’s a fair point, but not Morrissey’s concern here. The sad thing is that people like the protagonist of this song do exist. And the point of this song seems to be that it’s our society that creates such outsiders. I’m not sure I completely agree with Morrissey here, but it’s a point of view. Nonetheless, the song is redeemed, and given some heart, by the coda; over Smiths-esque arpeggios, Morrissey concisely articulates the grief of the dead squaddie’s parents, as they lament, ‘Funny how the war goes on, without our John.’ Poignant, painful and true, you can just picture them watching the news, as the carnage continues, their fallen son a mere pebble on the beach of the fallen. The boyish laughter that ends the song, far from being Morrissey laughing at the parents, seems, clearly, to me, to be the sound of John’s laughter when he was young and alive and carefree, before society broke him, and war and soldiery took him and ultimately killed him.
Blimey. Heavy stuff. An uncomfortable subject, dealt with in an uncompromising manner, and at the end achieving beauty and poignancy against the odds.
Then the album takes a strange, baroque turn, with a series of quieter pieces that recall Kill Uncle (that’s not a criticism). In Your Lap (despite the title) is lovely, just Morrissey’s voice and a wintry piano (plus the usual weird background effects that pepper latter-era Morrissey albums). Bizarrely the twinkling piano reminds me of Kate Bush. The Girl From Tel Aviv Who Would Not Kneel is rather wonderful, with a jolly calypso rhythm and more piano. We’re a million miles away from rock and roll here, Morrissey isn’t sticking to the tried and true guitar/bass/drums formula that of the Smiths and his early solo work. The song’s marred slightly by Morrissey’s ‘revelation’ that the Middle East conflict revolves around oil, and is one of two times where the naivety of the lyrics is rather too obvious. The other time is on the next track, the strummy, sunny, clappy All The Young People Must Fall In Love, where Morrissey sings ‘Presidents [it’s President’s in the lyric booklet!] come, presidents go, and no-one remembers their name two weeks after they go.’ Er, are you sure about this, Moz? No-one’s forgotten Obama, or any of the others, and no-one is likely ever to forget Trump.
We’re back in Tel Aviv again for When You Open Your Legs, which, again despite its title, is rather nice, with castanets, keening guitar and exotic flourishes of some instrument I cannot identity. Nice is not a word that can be applied to Who Will Protect Us From The Police? which revisits the brutal soundscapes of I Bury The Living. It sound like nothing Morrissey has ever recorded, all crunching percussion and squelching synthesisers.
The album ends with Israel, Donald Trump’s new favourite song. Musicians going anywhere near the place face opprobrium (as Nick Cave and Radiohead have discovered) but Morrissey comes out of it largely unscathed, by penning a rather sweet and undeniably beautiful love song to the place. ‘I can’t answer for what armies do, they are not you,’ he croons. His assertation that those who ‘abuse’ Israel are merely ‘jealous’ is completely in line with his world view that love is all. And perhaps, after recent events, this song will attain a notoriety Morrissey never intended.
As an album, I would say World Peace Is None Of Your Business has the better songs, but feels rather disjointed, whilst Low In High School Flows better and feels like the more complete album. So. Some strong tunes, some strange turns, some great lyrics, some dodgy lyrics, all belted out with complete conviction and passion. It’s a Morrissey album, as good as any other, and there’s the rub. Morrissey fans will love it or hate it and argue about it, and most everyone else won’t give a fuck. And neither will Morrissey.
Finally, there’s one thing I think everyone will agree on, even Morrissey’s harshest critics: he is much, much, much better at making music than he is at writing novels. Long may he continue to prevail with the latter.
❉ Morrissey’s new album, ‘Low in High School’ was released on 17 November 2017 through BMG.