As the late, great Sean Hughes once observed, “Everyone grows out of their Morrissey phase…except Morrissey”. I suspect Hughes meant this as a compliment, as Morrissey would be a lot less interesting if he ever grew up. There’s something admirable about an artist, especially one who’s been around so long, steadfastly refusing to engage with the world on any terms other than his own, even if that means occasionally (oh alright then, frequently) coming across as a bit of a dick. And I am sure Moz no doubt revels in the fact that the press, though they’d never admit it, still hang on his every word. After all, who else is there? Liam Gallagher? Not even close.
And yet, even we diehards have our limits, and it is becoming apparent even to us that his solo career has been a 30-year exercise in draining away the huge reserves of goodwill he built up as a Smith. In recent years – the mediocre solo albums, the self-indulgent fan-unfriendly setlists, the paranoid, over-long autobiography, the comically bad novel, the flirtation with UKIP – that goodwill has drained right down to the dregs. And as Low in High School finally, mercifully comes to an end, you can almost literally hear those last dregs being sucked down the plughole. The song in question is ‘Israel’, a histrionic piano ballad on which Morrissey helpfully explains why said nation is a pariah state – no, it’s not the massacring of children, the disproportionate influence on world affairs, the playing of the antisemitism card every time it’s criticised; it’s actually jealousy. “And they who reign abuse upon you/They are jealous of you as well.” Oh Moz, you absolute arse.
It’s a shame Low in High School ends this way because elsewhere – the first half of the album – it contains some of the best music Morrissey has made in years. He’s finally got a band capable of providing his hilariously entertaining narcissism with the dramatic backdrop it deserves, and their kitchen sink approach works for the most part, nowhere more so than on thrilling glam rock opener ‘My Love, I’d Do Anything for You’, one of the album’s many fusings of the personal with the political (“Society’s hell/You need me just like I need you”), and which reminds me of criminally underrated Southpaw Grammar track ‘The Operation’. Yes, that good.
Whatever Morrissey is singing about, ultimately it’s always Morrissey himself. ‘I Wish You Lonely’ sees Moz standing proudly alone amongst rock & roll sellouts and drug casualties (“Tombs are full of fools who gave their lives up on command/Romance gone wrong…heroin, heroin, heroin”) and being hated for it (“Like the last tracked humpback whale chased by gunships from Bergen/But never giving in, never giving in”), to a satisfyingly squelchy electro-rock backing. ‘Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on the Stage’ – for Jacky read Morrissey – is darkly, comically autobiographical, ending with Morrissey howling “EXIT! EXIT! EVERYBODY’S RUNNING FOR THE EXIT!” And the naff but catchy ‘Spent the Day in Bed’ evokes past glories, notably ‘Still Ill’ (“I’ve never had a job because I’ve never wanted one”) and ‘Shoplifters’ (“I was bored before I even began”) over a Mike Post-ish 70s AOR arrangement.
Low in High School’s last gasp is the epic, seven-minute ‘I Bury the Living’, on which Moz quite rightly nails that “hate the war/support the troops” nonsense for the damaging bullshit that it is. “You can’t blame me, I’m just a sweet little soldier…give me an order, I’ll blow up yer daughter” sings its protagonist, before being shot through the head to the bafflement of his mother – “Funny how the war goes on without our John”, with no thought to the innocent victims.
If Low in High School ended right there, it would be Moz’s best album since Vauxhall & I. Unfortunately, we’re only halfway through, and the remaining six songs truly stink the place out. ‘In Your Lap‘ tries to conflate the Arab Spring with his new-found interest in oral sex, for reasons best known to Moz himself. ‘All the Young People Must Fall in Love’ is musically slight and lyrically trite. ‘Open Your Legs’, another oral sex song, is a mariachi number set in Tel Aviv. Of course.
And then, finally, there’s ‘Israel’, a truly unpleasant low point from which Morrissey’s career, beyond Tel Aviv at least, may never recover. He may genuinely mean it, or he may just be trolling us all, and as such you almost feel like you’ve been had for getting upset by it; but then you remember why Morrissey once had such an effect on so many people – it was because you felt he understood you and was singing to you alone, rather than poking you with a stick. These days he sounds like he simply doesn’t understand human beings any more, and Low in High School is often little more than the utterly disengaged pronouncements of a wealthy hermit, who needs to get out of his LA mansion a little more often.