Friday, February 20, 2009

Review: Morrissey - Years of Refusal (* * * *)

This may shock some of you, but I've never really listened to Morrissey, or The Smiths for that matter. I know some of the hits, I recognize his amazing voice when I hear it, I suppose I just never gained the proper appreciation for Morrissey's talent as a singer and songwriter. So, Years of Refusal, his ninth post-Smiths solo album, might be an odd place to start, but perhaps that gives me a bit of a unique perspective. After several months of delay due to a search for a new U.S. label, the album was finally released this week among all of the excitement that accompanies the reception of new music from someone who NME described as "one of the most influential artists ever."

At this late stage in a musician's career, only the 'greats' manage to avoid, or at least hold off the almost universally inevitable decline in quality that comes with having released so many albums and simply being around the music scene for such a long time. The fact that Years of Refusal is a solid rock record, then, is a testament to Morrissey's well-earned iconic status. Opener "Something Is Squeezing My Skull" bursts confidently and smoothly out of the gates with driving guitars and Morrissey's tale of a life barely lived on unwanted medication, not exactly a unique subject, but a good indication that 'Refusal' is anything BUT one of those 'growing up and slowing down' snoozers that aging rockstars are all too prone to make.

Throughout the record, the band stay sharp and focused musically and lyrically. "Black Cloud" soars menacingly on some great guitar work by guest Jeff Beck, the lovely "I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris" is a unique take on the typical 'nobody loves me' tune, and "It's Not Your Birthday Anymore" combines an almost whispered verse and epic chorus for Morrissey's best vocal work on the album. Some tracks on 'Refusal' simply coast by without offering much of a real hook, but those moments are few and far between and the record provides enough variation to keep things entertaining throughout.

What impresses me most is Morrissey's ability to balance what feels like an effortless exercise in strong songwriting with perfect execution and a seemingly sincere delivery that makes the album so engaging and appealing. While I can't compare this to his earlier work, at no point during the record does Morrissey come across as tired or uninterested, instead, even as he approaches his 50th birthday this year, his energy, earnestness, and musical chops are here in full force. Years of Refusal is yet another accomplished record in a career already littered with them.