PERMANENT RECORDS: I JUST WANT TO SEE THE BOY HAPPY
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
42. MORRISSEY - RINGLEADER OF THE TORMENTORS (2006)
Personnel: Morrissey, vocals; Alain White, Boz Boorer, & Jesse Tobias, guitars; Gary Day, bass ; Mikey Farrell, keyboards; Matt Chamberlain, drums; Ennio Morricone, string arrangements "Dear God, Please Help Me"
Producer: Tony Visconti / Label: Attack/Sanctuary
This little project is a big challenge for me. One of the various reasons I left freelance music journalism several years ago was I didn't feel my writing was showing any inspiration. I had fallen into a rut no one was assisting me in getting out of, and if there is anything I've learned about creative endeavors, sometimes you have to know when the jig is up and leave. (Though, unfortunately, it ends up feeling like you've left the dance early without your lover, and you can only hope you're the one who broke up with her and she didn't actually leave you for another fella.) In planning out what album to do from week-to-week, I am considering a lot of factors, including how I might approach the next record differently than what has gone before. I don't want a personal reminiscence review, for instance, to follow another of the same kind, I want to space those out. Most of all, though, it's my desire to stretch my language, to redefine how I write about music, to push myself to express my thoughts in new ways. As I started Permanent Records, I made a mental note of some techniques I might try, most of which are still waiting in reserve.
One of them was to buy an album on its Tuesday release date, take it home, listen to it as much as I could, and have an entry up about it on Friday. So far, no opportunity had really presented itself, partially because, let's face it, most of us music nerds are hearing records before they are actually available to buy. Most records I purchase nowadays have already been on my iPod for weeks before they are on store shelves. So, when the newest Morrissey album, Ringleader of the Tormentors, leaked on the internet this week, I decided to let this be my opportunity.
(Before anyone gets up in arms, I am not a fan of piracy for the sake of piracy. I don't believe one should just download whatever one wants willy nilly; however, I do appreciate it as a sampling tool. I have no intention of ripping Morrissey off. I have already preordered the deluxe edition of Ringleader--which also gives me free access to an Amazon stream of the disc that I can listen to legally. I also had his last album, You Are The Quarry, far in advance of its release, and still ended up dropping over $60 on it, buying three separate copies: the first release with the bonus DVD, the vinyl, and the re-released "Platinum Edition." So, stay off my back. Similarly, don't even bother asking me for the mp3s.)
I'm going to go over the album track by track and give my impressions. It may be more scattershot than insightful, but we're going to do this full-tilt boogie and hope for the best. In part, the harried state of writing, as the music plays and I type in a vain hope of keeping up, will be an adrenaline match for the exhilaration the record inspires in me, because this is a truly amazing release. I would currently rank it in his discography just under the reigning champs, Your Arsenal and Vauxhall & I. I feel that Ringleader compares with those efforts in that it sees an expansion of the Morrissey approach, new lyrical concerns and a shift in the sonic production. Interestingly, the latter was kicked off in both cases by former collaborators of David Bowie--the previous period with the Spiders of Mars guitarist Mick Ronson, this time with Bowie-producer Tony Visconti. They also followed shifts in Mozzer's geography. Though he wasn't a full American transplant yet, his cry of "We look to Los Angeles for the language we use/ London is dead" on Arsenal's "Glamorous Glue" turned out to be prophetic since Morrissey moved into one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's old homes in the Hollywood Hills shortly after. He has said that some sort of compulsion drew him to Rome for the recording of Ringleader, and Italy permeates this disc, earning mentions in several songs. The collaboration with Italy's greatest modern composer, Ennio Morricone, is surely no coincidence. Morricone's best work is an excellent reference point for what we have here, as is the cover image of Moz playing violin: this is Morrissey's opera, his spaghetti western. It's big, it's crazy, it's loud, full of passion and furor. As good as Quarry was, this is better. That album now pales in comparison to its new sibling. Quarry was Margo Harrington, unexpectedly opening the door to this new sound, and Ringleader in the role of Eve Harrington has waltzed in and taken over.
The opera comparisons continue to hold water when the grand themes become evident. This album is about love and sex, religion and death, and ultimately, rebirth. References to these ideas will come up again and again to inform us that the Morrissey we knew before was merely a figment, a specter. He wasn't truly breathing, but drifting through life disengaged. "I entered nothing, and nothing entered me." He refers to himself as a ghost more than once on the record, as well as referring to his own death in terms both literal ("I Just Want to See the Boy Happy") and metaphorical ("You Have Killed Me"), only to emerge on the other side as something alive, fresh, and new. Ringleader of the Tormentors is a total artistic reinvention.
1. "I Will See You in Far Off Places": The first song on any album is important. If the artist is putting any thought into it, it's going to serve as a sort of manifesto, or an invitation into the world that will be found nestling inside the rest of the vinyl grooves. Morrissey has clearly thought this through, delivering two quick jabs, one musically and the other lyrically: a techno dirge and windy, Middle Eastern howling rising to the opening lines, "Nobody knows what human life is/ why we come, why we go/ so why then do I know/ I will see you/ I will see you in far off places." This lead-in encapsulates all of the themes of the album. It's the Mexican stand-off, who will go for their guns, who will go for a hug. It's about the connections between people, how they are made and how they are broken. It's about the smallness of individuality, and the greater forces that weigh on our lives. The Eastern sounds are intentional, as there are overtly political lyrics here: "If God bestows protection upon you / and if the U-S-A doesn't bomb you." Morrissey is reaching out across all social strata, pointing to the thing we all have in common: we will die, and when we have, we will have unity and peace. But is it a real death, or an existential death, something out of Albert Camus? Either way, the band is evoking an otherworldly sensation, whipping around us like a tornado and whisking us off--dare I make the pun? I shall!--to Moz. (iPod plays since Monday night: 6)
2. "Dear God Please Help Me": A melancholy stroll on a late night, down a maudlin street, a dialogue between Morrissey and his maker, as the urges of the body become too much, as the predators sniff out the desire. "Dear God, did this kind of thing happen to you?" The question is whether Morrissey is asking for strength to carry through with it, or to get out of it. Does he want those "explosive kegs between my legs" to go off? He hasn't had a song this sexual since "Stretch Out & Wait" back in the Smiths days, though the rebellion of one's body also brings to mind "Tomorrow." The instrumentation hangs back, providing the mood that follows him through the back alleys as if the music were a fog or a dark cloud that dogs a searching soul. Morricone's strings stay quiet, shuddering along with the steady rumble of the drumming until Morrissey declares his heart free, surrendering to the experience, and the crescendo builds, leaving us in the end with the string section all by its lonesome. The sunrise, perhaps? The post-coital guilt? Will there be a walk of shame in our future? (iPod plays: 5)
3. "You Have Killed Me": Nope, there will be a rave-up. The single. The pop 45 as pulp fiction. Built on a nice, chunky guitar riff, this is a song about being knocked off kilter by love. The melodic hook buzzes with the energy of a fresh crush, and the vocals vacillate between celebration and doubt. The central metaphor is that this love has devastated the narrator, taking over in the way these things can. He thought he was going to walk through life untouched by romantic connections, and now he's in for an emotional mugging, something that compels him more than it scares him. It's an assured single, encapsulating a specific sensation in its boundaries. Extra points for working in references to famous Italian motion picture directors Pier Paolo Pasolini (a controversial figure who sought to bust convention and expose hypocrisy with lurid narratives) and Luchino Visconti (a romantic whose best work examined the fading of ideals in meticulous detail). (iPod plays: 7)
4. "The Youngest Was the Most Loved": One can be forgiven for being wary upon hearing that Visconti was bringing in a children's choir for the record. "Youngest Was the Most Loved" is the first song they are employed on, and as soon as I heard them chanting, "There is no such thing in life as normal," all my fears subsided. It hearkens back to the glory days of Moz being joined on a television stage by a grade schooler for a rousing rendition of "Panic." Is it that the sentiment is so simple, even a child knows it? (iPod plays: 7)
5. "In the Future When All's Well": The revelations of love continue, as Morrissey ponders the good fortune that has come to him far later than he expected, after he'd given up hope. It's an upbeat number that casts a visionary eye to positive times ahead, making it all the more striking when it turns morbid at the end, declaring that we can all expect the "long, long sleep" in our future. Perhaps our writer has been devouring some hard-boiled novels? (iPod plays: 9)
6. "The Father Who Must Be Killed": Morrissey has been known to pick up the odd misfit cause in the past, such as wearing a hearing aid on "Top of the Pops" in solidarity with a fan who had hearing difficulties. This song is not about all dads, but stepdads--the mean kind--taking up the banner of the kids who have been unlucky enough to see their mother marry poorly. "Stepchild, I release you/ with this broken voice, I beseech you." The song's loping gait, with the return of the children's choir for the occasional chant, uses images of violent revenge, but its intent is to break the pattern of abuse, to give the kids in desperate situations some kind of positive idea that they can use to get out, go somewhere else, escape the cycle. If there is to be rebirth, then the ideal of youth must be protected (just as it is praised on "The Youngest Was the Most Loved"). The chorus is a fist-pumping glam line, stadium-ready. Its melody is so involving, it's easy to miss how pointed and grisly the lyrics are as you bop your head along with it. "The Father Who Must Be Killed" is gutsy agitpop. (iPod plays: 8)
7. "Life is a Pigsty": The pace slows down again. As on "Dear God..." there is almost a sense of wandering to the structure of the track. Morrissey has always liked his mellower tunes to play like longer narratives that unfold over open spaces rather than being stuck in a standard pop structure (think: "I Know It's Over," "Seasick, Yet Still Docked," etc.). In some ways, it's almost like a pessimistic "I Will Survive" caught up in a river of molasses, planting both feet on the ground, declaring that existence is shit, and then saying, "So, what?" Because You can shoot me or and you can throw me off a train/ I still maintain, I still maintain." In fact, once more we're treated to hints of some new and unexpected hook-up in the life of Il Mozalini. "I'm the same underneath," he sings at one point, only to later repeat "I've fallen in love again" over and over before letting the musicians roll off into their expected crescendo, the intermittent thunderstorm noises heard at different points across the track now completely inseparable from the sound of the band, the smashing cymbals sounding as if they are soaked in water. There is malice in the expression, too. My fists are clenched, you will listen. (iPod plays: 9)
"Damn, this review is taking forever..."
8. "I'll Never Be Anybody's Hero Now": This song definitely falls on the darker side of the album's themes, mired in the feeling that something has passed, that life has slipped through your grasp. Once more, we have a Moz who doesn't feel in touch with the world, declaring, "I am a ghost, and as far as I know, I haven't even died." He declares his "one true love" as "being underground," leaving him without a connection to what is going on around him. This could also be an indictment of our political climate, as it feels like right thinking is no longer valued and smart solutions to problems are mocked and ridiculed. References to the Haves hating the Have-Nots and other socially conscious proclamations bear this out. Morrissey's voice is plaintive, hitting high notes when declaring the title statement, eventually switching out "lover" for "hero," almost turning this into a torch ballad, letting the loose-necked piano tinkling lead the way. (iPod plays: 7)
9. "On the Streets I Ran": Another number with drive. For the faster paced tracks on Ringleader, the band seems to prefer pounding the guitar strings and drum kit in tandem more than the poppier melodies of yore, and it works. The extended intro to "On the Streets I Ran" provides an excellent aroma, tantalizing the senses for the "oooooh" that Morrissey rings in on. With references to class and to breaking out of small-minded communities, this could almost be a song written by some denim-clad band from New Jersey. (Either that, or I could hear this covered by the Tears.) It's the American rock fantasy, getting out of working-class drudgery by "turning sickness into popular song." The desperation is palpable by song's end, singer and band in sync on their way to a frenzy, building to a head and cutting out. (iPod plays: 7)
10. "To Me You Are A Work of Art": And here is where sequencing is so important. "On the Streets I Ran" ends abruptly, the only fade being the instruments settling, and just as they are about done, Visconti hits us with the opening whale cries of "To Me You Are A Work of Art," moving effortlessly from one to the other and taking the listener with him. There is a grandiosity to this love ballad that has me imagining Neil Diamond covering it one day. There is even a hint of gravel in how the Mozfather delivers the verses. Phrases like "I live the life/ I feel the pain/ to sing the song/ to tell the tale...I see the world/ It makes me puke/ but then I look at you/ and know that somewhere there's a someone who can soothe me" and the soaring titular refrain in the chorus, the insistence of the verses giving over to the sweeping grandeur of a heavy orchestration, could give Neil a run from his cheeseball money. Except the reason the Neil Diamond formula works is that Neil knows that matters of the heart are invariably cheesy, invariably over the top, we don't go halfway with how we feel. Human drama is inextricable from human comedy, and as long as you sing it like you mean it--and Morrissey does--it can't be torn down. (iPod plays: 9)
11. "I Just Want to See the Boy Happy": Another hard charger, perhaps the hardest, reminding me some of the Quarry b-sides like "Don't Make Fun of Daddy's Voice" and "It's Hard to Walk Tall When You're Small" with their clipped duration and forward momentum. This song would make an excellent second single. It's both comic and tragic, with the wobble in Morrissey's voice when he is declaring that he will soon be dead indicating he understands the melodrama of such a statement (again, tragedy bound with comedy), while the forcefulness of the instrumentation is only possible when one is completely sincere. (The chaotic trumpet at the end is brilliant.) The great poetic twist here, though, is that the thing he'd like to see in order to cheer up the unknown boy--himself, probably, since he is singing from his ailing father's bedside, living Hemingway's famous assertion that all writers are searching for dear old papa--is the bloom of first love. Death and romance, the Ringleader mainstays. How fitting that at the end of life we dream of the most fundamental joy from the start of it. Which all leads to... (iPod plays: 10)
12. "At Last I Am Born": Just like the first song, "I Will See You in Far Off Places," the finale of Ringleader of the Tormentors announces itself in a grand fashion, with savage bows raked across stringed instruments. It would be perfect movie music for when the heroes crest the hill, ready to descend on the army that vastly outnumbers them, boldly diving head-first into a lost cause. There is even a breakdown in the pre-chorus that has a slow, rockabilly twang and snapping fingers/castanets. In those moments, Morrissey digs through his past, invoking the image of himself as a former "difficult child" and "spectral hand" (once again, an image of being unable to touch the corporeal world), but every time we come out of it, it's into a defiant cry of new life: "I once thought that I had numerous reasons to cry/ and I did but I don't anymore." As closing numbers go, you can't ask for more than this. Our man has learned lessons, he is newly invigorated. His mortality no longer frightens him ("I once thought that time/ accentuates despair/ but now I don't actually care"), neither do his foibles (""I once was a mess/ of guilt because of the flesh"). The cause can be as lost as it wants to be, because he is not. We don't need to know how it turns out any more than we needed confirmation whether Butch and Sundance survived. Morrissey's job was getting us here. The rest is up to us to use as we can. (iPod plays: 11)
And who ever thought that this was how we'd be summing up a Morrissey record after all these years? No more doubt, no more fear of physical romance or emotional connection, and we've even stood up to the Grim Reaper and won. I had always felt that the problem with Morrissey's albums after Vauxhall and I was that he was still trying to write about what it was like to be fifteen, clumsy, and shy, and that he no longer had anything to say about it. Even worse, I had no need to hear it. I wanted him to grow up with me. I wanted his perspective on the years past 25, past 30. Here he is, approaching his 47th birthday, and goddamn if he didn't deliver.
Summed up in one line, Ringleader of the Tormentors is a musical portrait of a man tearing himself down in preparation for resurrection, forgetting his perceptions of his own humanity so that he can experience life anew. It's completely unexpected and completely brilliant. The cover image is not at all ironic. You will be listening to a virtuoso, a warbling diva, play his instrument unlike ever before.
Yes, Stephen, at last you are born.
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Current Soundtrack: the album in question
Current Mood: satisfied
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich