Provocation has always been a sharp tool in Morrissey’s arsenal. In his earliest days with The Smiths, the singer took then-controversial stances on meat (it’s murder), sex (skip it), and the monarchy (kill it). But as he’s gotten older, his declarations have gotten tougher for fans to swallow, culminating in his public endorsement of For Britain, a far-right political party he seems to have embraced because of its animal-rights platform, but that takes some troubling stances on Islam (to put it mildly), among other things.
Although some of those provocative stances are at least semi-defensible, they’re almost certainly heartfelt: Morrissey has always existed outside the mainstream, but his positions seem rooted in true belief rather than a desire to remain relevant. And maybe that’s what makes the first track from his 13th album so misguided and loathsome. “Jim Jim Falls” is one of his catchiest in years, but its insistent lyric—“If you’re gonna kill yourself / Then for God’s sake just kill yourself”—isn’t just out of step with the times; it’s potentially dangerous. Sure, it could be read as self-directed, or as admonishment to stop self-pitying and get to work, but if that’s the case, it’s not clear enough. And when you consider his reaction to a superfan’s suicide in 2013—“There is nothing wrong with taking your destiny into your own hands”—the song feels even worse.
If you can get past the pall cast by that song’s sentiment, I Am Not A Dog On A Chain features some of Morrissey’s best songs in years, and a couple of his worst. It leans—in weird but not unwelcome ways—on electronics more than any record he’s ever done. “Love Is On Its Way Out” starts with ambient talking before giving way to insistent loops of keyboard and keening vocal samples. Its sentiment is classic Morrissey, the one people fell in love with: The world is shit, love is over… but maybe he could get a little taste before it’s all gone? There’s hope, and it’s backed by a great vocal performance—at 60, he’s never been a better singer.
When he descends into pure cynicism, though, Morrissey shows the darker side of his age. “What Kind Of People Live In These Houses” stops just short of using the word “sheeple,” but you can almost hear him straining to keep it in. Musically, it’s jaunty as hell, almost Smiths-like, a sound he’s tried mostly to avoid over the past couple of decades. But lyrically, it’s just a pitying look at everyday life: People will never change, and aren’t their lives just a wasted blur of TV and sex? And on the title track, he dips his toes just slightly into conspiracy-theorist waters, singing, “I do not read newspapers / They are troublemakers / Listen out for what you’re not being told.” It’s a short leap from there to “fake news.”
Still, compassionate Morrissey lives. “The Truth About Ruth” offers an understanding of trans people, with mournful Spanish-influenced guitar that gently recalls “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.” He’s also funny and pointed on “Darling, I Hug A Pillow,” which includes trumpets that accent his lifelong desire for some booty—any booty. “Everything else is in place / Except physical love,” he intones. (Maybe don’t call it “physical love” when asking for it, though? Seems like a potential turnoff.) And on “Once I Saw The River Clean,” Morrissey skips back to his youth via an electronic ’80s undercarriage, walking down the street with his grandmother, her in search of cigarettes, him after a T. Rex single.
The less said about the eight-minute, Beat poetry-inspired “The Secret Of Music” the better. But once it’s done, I Am Not A Dog exhales with another bit of welcome nostalgia in “My Hurling Days Are Done.” Morrissey has always flirted with the grim reaper, but at 60 he seems more accepting of his own mortality than romantic about it. “There is no one to tell,” he sings, strongly, “and there’s nowhere to run.” It’s a rare moment of universality from a songwriter who used to do it effortlessly.