It might've been that auspicious first single, or the even the dramatic art work--the Deutsche Grammophon-inspired Ringleader cover was a nice, if flagrant, nod to the august stuff inside. But this image of a lording Moz with a swaddled child in his arm is as cryptic as it is indulgent.
I eagerly disparaged apologists who covered for the two most recent Moz lp's--as vigorously as I defended the spotty, but occasionally magnetic, Maladjusted. Morrissey has been suffering at the hands of critical and spectatorial frenzies all his professional life. And if anything their erratic pronouncements have tilted even further in his favor over the past few years.
Morrissey represents the belated child of a generation--the love mistake errantly shot, young, into the Thatcher/Reagan years. His glam post-punk emerged from Roxy Music and the New York Dolls in much the way that Neutral Milk Hotel's obscene yodel emerged from his early-Smiths vocal style; or Richard Hawley's rockabilly crooner reboot from solo Moz tunes like "The Loop", or the earlier's James Dean-idolatry, "Nowhere Fast". Apart from late Quentin Crisp and maybe late Truman Capote in Murder By Death, the solidified notion of a cool old queen in popular culture remains inchoate--Antony's growing up fast and scarred in the spotlight, but as the Man said, these things take time. In their (perfectly reasonable) gambits for the posterity purse the New York Dolls have come to resemble Aerosmith. Nothing wrong with it, just not exactly what one likes to think of when envisioning the natural progression of glamorous scum.
But Morrissey, despite all missteps along the way, might just be that vision. Now more than ever. Why else would we still wait up? Why else would critics still forge sweatily to find his hidden, sometimes tissue-thin, virtues?
Having paced his career spectacularly--if unwittingly so, the Morrissey emerging here relishes a bolstered Smiths revival, invigorated in his ongoing business with this rotating band. But its not just a planetary alignment that makes this outing different from recent previous ones. In fact the prior two, nearly equally over-praised, 2003's You Are The Quarry & 2006's Ringleader of the Tormentors, each share the magnitude of Years of Refusal--a sustaining air of a comeback. The only difference is that the singer and band alike seem to be finally willing to embrace it, and move with its celebratory energies.
Sadly, like any icon of Morrissey's ever emboldening status, the infiltration of reverence has its costs. There are dull moments to Years of Refusal that must have, in the studio, seemed both natural and filial. "Black Cloud" & "All You Need is Me" (minus a few tack-sharp lyrical turns) are sincere, if couch-comfortable by now. In them overt desires to satisfy Morrissey's need to self-actualize--not to mention that gang's dedication to abetting him, sometimes trump the simmering pursuit of a catchy tune. The music works out of that faintly rockabilly heritage guiding much of the post-Bona Drag solo era, but it's generalized guitar rock personality resists the hooks and wants for ever more of the seductive barbs that once enlivened the younger man.
"I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris" is one of a fine number of tunes to dispel these doubts. Set to a shimmering orchestral Pretenders-pop sound--not unlike the "Boxers" single, its melody sticks, and the irresistibly narcissistic metaphor of Morrissey as Helen of Troy is the arrogant stuff for which he was first (and best) loved. That it may just be a paean to his new city of residence is purely beside the point.
The un[der]examined sidemen heard on Years, push against caution, lending a professionalism to Morrissey's revitalized passion. "It's Not Your Birthday Anymore" shows that core band (drummer, Matt Walker, lending a particular kind of explosiveness) in lock step with that singer, the awkward soaring, animal target; three years ago this would've sounded by-the-numbers. We get melody, we get a spark back. The underlying irony is that Morrissey hasn't really changed his authorial voice. He's still the same vicious, graying masochist. But with a lift in his sincerity the need to make excuses for him has been gratefully alleviated.