By DAN MACINTOSH
You can sometimes recognize a Morrissey album before you even hear a single note.
His latest album is titled I Am Not a Dog on a Chain, but not — mind you — I’m Not a Dog on a Chain. No contractions, thank you very much.
He is ever formal, ever distinctly grammatical and ever over enunciating. Even though there are abundant clues giving away this new album’s creator, there are also clear signs of growth and sonic exploration, which make it a sometimes-fascinating listening experience.
These new wrinkles confront listeners from the very get-go. “Jim Jim Falls” kicks off the album with a synth-driven groove, sporting a sound more associated with Pet Shop Boys or New Order, than with Morrissey. The Smiths, Morrissey’s former band, beautifully ripped off The Byrds and Velvet Underground with darkly jangling guitar rock. You can almost dance to this one, though. (Just please don’t hang the DJ for that). The song’s lyric is also out of character.
“If you’re going to kill yourself/For God’s sake, kill yourself,” Morrissey advises, with a sort of morbid ‘either poop or get off the pot’ admonishment. This advice is coming from a guy that’s fantasized about suicide – without ever actually taking his own life – throughout his long musical career. If Morrissey had taken his own advice, of course, we may not have even had him around past album one. So, there’s that.
Returning producer Joe Chiccarelli can be thanked for encouraging Morrissey to step outside his sonic comfort zone with this latest full-length. However, the contrast between the robotically soul-less Morrissey vocal and disco diva Thelma Houston on “Bobby, Don’t You think They Know” is more than a little awkward. The track even includes a funky organ solo and an equally groovy saxophone solo.
Morrissey, who has evolved into a talented balladeer, doesn’t flex those anthemic musical muscles much with this effort. Instead, he’s much more focused on his voice acting as just one of many sonic elements filling out the mixes. One exception, though, is the piano ballad “The Truth About Ruth,” which is a rare quieter inclusion.
The album’s title track is as close as Morrissey gets to addressing those who have recently criticized the artist’s outspokenly conservative political leanings. He suggests in its lyric that he may be skinned alive for these views, but as a free agent (in contrast to a chained dog), Morrissey will never stop expressing himself. And really, did we ever really think this big mouth would never strike again?
One called “What Kind of People Live in These Houses” is another awkward moment, as it finds Morrissey nosily wondering what type of people are like behind closed doors. However, the element that makes this track especially stand out is Greg Leisz’s pedal steel guitar work on it.
Yes, there’s pedal steel on a Morrissey album! Can a Morrissey country album be far away? Speaking of unusual aural elements, “Darling, I Hug a Pillow” features “Ring of Fire”-like horns on it. These unexpected instruments go a long way in preventing any sameness from setting in, track to track.
It sometimes seems as though the universe is pushing hard for Morrissey to become irrelevant. Yet Morrissey hasn’t quit pushing back against that pressure. This album proves Morrissey is not a dog on a chain, nor a dog that cannot be taught new tricks.