Music

Morrissey’s Prophetic Journal of the Plague Year

English singer Morrissey performs during the Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo, Norway, December 11, 2013. (Tobias Schwarz/Reuters)
Defiance is art in his new album, I Am Not a Dog on a Chain

No wonder media hacks hate Morrissey. His superb new album I Am Not a Dog on a Chain has been trounced for challenging the pre-programmed, go-along-to-get-along practices of mainstream media and its followers. The title track gets wonderfully witty: “Thanks all the same / I use my own brain / I do not read newspapers / They are troublemakers.” This tune, sung with wry gentleness, endorses the two most controversial concepts of the millennium: “Fake News” and “Enemy of the People.”

Morrissey’s skepticism of media maintains the bravery that once made British pop exciting, and Morrissey achieves greatness when the new release opens up punk’s political rebellion to reveal personal urgency in new melodious styles — thinking for himself, singing to all, speaking to you.

Although I Am Not a Dog on a Chain was recorded last year, it shows prophetic insight; its 2020 release is serendipitous for the current plague. You hear in it a perfect retort to COVID-19 compliance and the mindless trust of those who forfeit liberty in favor of obeying commands by the media and political class.

Morrissey, as defiant as Kanye West, examines the self-protective impulses that characterize human weakness (“Jim Jim Falls” compares moral indecision to artistic suicide). Then he elucidates the faith and courage required in times of deep, existential — even metaphysical — stress (“Love Is on Its Way Out”).

As pop stars grow into maturity (Morrissey will be 61 next month), few maintain ingenuity while risking popularity. This album’s varied and inventive production continue the innovations of 2018’s Low in High School. Its relevance comes from applying new perspectives to society’s current bewilderment, as in “What Kind of People Live in These Houses,” which observes unquestioned political legacies: “They vote the way they vote / They don’t know how to change / Because their parents did the same.” Morrissey gets at the crux of political custom and its modern repetition. “They look at television / Thinking it’s their window to the world.” He sings it twice, then comes the emotional punch: “That’s got to hurt.”

Compassion is Morrissey’s greatest gift, and it shows on the album’s two major tracks. The first, “Bobby, Don’t You Think They Know,” addresses the ongoing drug epidemic as a false response to modern terror and anxiety. Duetting with R & B veteran Thelma Houston, Morrissey powerfully expresses the inner strength of morally based empathy, underscored by Houston’s soulful wailing — a different register from the white indie pop he’s known for but that confirms a universal awareness. “You ain’t foolin’ nobody!” Houston exhorts, talking tough about the delusions of a loved one in pain. This disturbing and magnificent track ranks with Merry Clayton’s vocals on “Gimme Shelter,” Dusty Springfield on “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” and Tammy Wynette on “Justified and Ancient.” It’s a wake-up call to licentious pop that encourages reckless self-justification.

The second-most compassionate track, “Once I Saw the River Clean,” is a remembrance of Morrissey’s childhood and his family history that also recognizes his fate, and ours: “Distant future wait for me. . . . Time will come but it hasn’t yet / Someone’s out to get me.” Overall, the album encapsulates the fine points of mortal consciousness — every song offering specific instances of memory and contemplation, the most profound human faculties.

Following the reevaluated folk songs of last year’s California Son album, Morrissey can fluently connect politics to everyday awareness. That wisdom backs up the independence declared on “I Am Not a Dog on a Chain.” He’s a hard thinker with no time to suffer fools who don’t risk, who aren’t true to themselves — in art, politics, or life. It’s a philosophy derived from his favorite play, A Taste of Honey: “You decide for yourself if you’re crazy.”

The album splits between individuated tracks on the first half and a second half that moves between several intense personal confessions (such as the exquisite “Darling, I Hug a Pillow”) that deserve more detailed examination than can be done here. (In short, one masterpiece after another.) But a most representative track is “The Truth About Ruth” which has been misunderstood as a song about transsexual rights when it is nothing so inane. (Just as 2018’s “Israel” was a distinctly personal, romantic pledge, not mere nationalism.) Here is where Morrissey exposes figments of the political imagination — the fallacies that keep us apart. The lyric “You know who you are, but you have no idea” exposes the political certainty that anyone (male, female, black, white, religious, atheist) can casually buy into.

This album is based in earned wisdom, and every track — creatively exploring dance pop, baroque art pop, and folk confession — confirms the process of tough, unconventional thinking and self-examination. Morrissey understands the snotty, cowardly nature of media braggarts as well as those who envy the commanding heights. In “The Secret of Music,” a trance-like exploration matches emotional uncertainty to artistic means. At precisely the moment that conventional pop media has betrayed the public, scaring it to death, Morrissey refines his purpose. Or, as the audacious rapper DJ Kool once said, “Let me clear my throat.” Morrissey’s most heartrending, scratchy vocal comes next on “My Hurling Days Are Done.”

After the far-left press has gotten its revenge, persecuting Morrissey as a “far-right” traitor to pop liberalism (they prefer the anti-monarchist stance of his early records with The Smiths), this album should win its proper historical position. I Am Not a Dog on a Chain movingly ranks alongside Daniel Defoe’s classic 1722 work of moral and literary imagination, A Journal of the Plague Year. There won’t likely be a more relevant album of spiritual resolve this decade.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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