Monday, 30 July 2007

Top 100 Albums - #79: Ringleader Of The Tormentors (2006)

Morrissey's only effort to make the chart is his most recent release. Ringleader Of The Tormentors was designed to consolidate Morrissey's solo comeback after the success of You Are The Quarry (2004). Following the success of Vauxhall And I (1994), Morrissey had declared that he would never top it, being at the very peak of his powers and contemplating retirement.¹ Unfortunately for him, the next few years seemed to fulfill those badly chosen words. His next two albums, the proggish Southpaw Grammar (1995) and the Smiths-ish Maladjusted (1997) both received mixed-to-negative reviews. As Britpop swept across 1990s Britain, the likes of Blur and Oasis denounced Morrissey as a moaning has-been, and he limped off to Los Angeles into what seemed like retirement. In 2004, with Britpop dead and buried, he stormed back with You Are The Quarry, restoring his reputation as a doom-mongering wordsmith and setting things up nicely for a full-flung comeback.

Or so you'd think. Because listening to the opening track, 'I Will See You In Far-Off Places', does not fill you with much hope or make you believe that the hype is deserved. The pre-vocal section is too chaotic to add anything to the song, and Mozza's clunky delivery makes this an almost impossible listen. It's repetitive, formulaic and lyrically incredibly awkward, even by his standards. It is the same story for 'Dear God, Please Help Me'. The use of acoustic guitar and organ is a very interesting and wise choice, but again Mozza is the fly in the ointment. Lines likes There are explosive kegs/ Between my legs sound like a lyricist's cry for help, being so jerky and unsubtle as they are. It's not that Morrissey can't sing - it's just that his voice leaves no room for the casual listener.

The single 'You Have Killed Me' shares the same flaws, and makes things worse by becoming the most vacuous drivel he has produced in years. The verses are meaningless tat and the chorus is almost laughable, with lines like Yes, I walk around, somehow/ But you have killed me, you have killed me. Morrissey has squandered everything available - including a fair strings session provided by producer Tony Visconti - to produce a tacky, meandering pub-pop song - for this, he has every reason to be ashamed.

Thankfully, things improve a little with 'The Youngest Was The Most Loved'. Even that statement comes as a relief in itself. Opening with traffic noises, all fears of more drab 3-minute pop are quashed with this dark parable of a protected child who turns into a killer. With strong bass at the start, and a good ironic refrain - There is no such thing in life as normal - this is a much stronger piece which, at the very least, doesn't grate your nerves. And to do this with both a children's choir and pointless falsetto at the end is quite a coup.

'In The Future When All's Well' starts very boldly, as if to say that this form will continue. It doesn't. This is a return to the inane self-parodying pop of the first three tracks. This is too bright and repetitive to pass muster as a real Mozza masterpiece, to use the word extremely loosely. There are lyrical hooks, but they are of such a banal and stupefying nature that they dig into your side instead of earworming their way into your memory.

Finally, after all this torment, we come to 'The Father Who Must Be Killed'. This is a murder ballad of Nick Cave quality. It pulls no punches while, like all good murder ballads, making you side with the killer, in this case a child killing its stepfather. The lyrics are graphic to say the least:

So the step-child ran with the knife to his
Sleeping frame and slams it in his arms,
His legs his face his neck, and says:
"There's a law against me now."

Through listening to this enticing track, whetting your appetite for the second half, you can't help wishing the rest of the album had been more like this. At the very least, a lot of the features of this track could have been grafted onto the other tracks. But before you can speak your mind, the rain begins to fall as we enter 'Life Is A Pigsty'. The previous track may have been great, but this is fantastic. This, and this alone, is the great track on the album, the yardstick against which modern Mozza should be measured. The production is superb, the use of piano is sensitive and the rain completes the mood without seeming like an offcut from a forgotten prog record. Like the bass line, the message is simple yet brilliant - that modern life is shit, and there is no escape. Sure, it would be too hasty to compare this to something like 'Gloomy Sunday', but this is as close to utter despair that Morrissey has come since the days of Hatful Of Hollow (1984).

It is a great shame then that, having delivered two of his finest tracks in one go, Mozza goes and ruins things on 'I'll Never Be Anybody's Hero'. This is not quite is inane as some of the songs, but it still feels like he's treading water, extending choruses to string out a dead message and avoid producing only half an album. There are more laughable lyrics, like I am a ghost/ And as far as I know/ I haven't even died, which well make you scoff or else fain pity. It's the same story with 'On The Streets I Ran'. In it Morrissey claimed that he has Turned sickness into popular song - more terrible self-parody. You sense that the sessions musicians - especially Gary Day on bass - are straining to desperately bring out the best in the music, and yet they are losing the battle to Morrissey's mindless mediocrity.

The last truly fabulous song on the album is 'To Me You Are A Work Of Art'. As on 'Life Is A Pigsty', the production is rich and layered, and yet this is more upbeat, making it a double coup. The chorus is impressive enough, at least by contemporary standards:

To me you are
A work of art
And I would give you my heart
That's if I had one

There are some wonderful guitar and bass vibes coming on here on tops of the electronica washes which are reminiscent of 'Unhappy Birthday' on Strangeways Here We Come (1987). It was the continuation of this sound which made Morrissey's first solo record, Viva Hate (1988), so successful, and by revisiting it he achieves the same result. It's a greatly underrated song, at least in the context of the album.

The closing two songs are both better fare in general from Mozza. 'I Just Want To See The Boy Happy' features great guitar and drum combinations from Boz Boorer and Dan Chamberlain respectively. It's an urgent plea which Morrissey manages to pass of without seeming either cloyed or a victim of his own signature sound. The latter is more grandiose, as with an orchestra backing him Mozza launched into a number which is both self-promoting and self-deprecating at the same time. There is little tinkering made to the formula which Mozza has by now consolidated (and then satirised), but this is fair enough in quality for even the devoted listener to overlook this.

Ringleader Of The Tormentors will try the patience of many a listener. Whether you come to this a Smiths and Mozza fan to the point of mental illness, or discover this by accident, you will need to come with plenty of patience and perseverance if you want to reach the good stuff. This, it turns out, is the sort of album which you skip through after the initial listen, and in any case the good tracks are only good as occassional listeners. All of this would seem to undermine the argument for its inclusion on the chart. But there are some good points to it. Visconti's production is as flawless as ever, as you would expect from one of the best in the business. And while the lyrics are the weakness of this album in many places, musically this is a reasonable effort. But while that is enough to redeem itself enough to justify its positioning, Morrissey should take these criticisms - which have been made elsewhere - on board whenever he chooses to complete his comeback.

3.75 out of 5
¹ Accessed on July 31 2007.

No comments: