Jamie Stewart was born in 1978 in Los Angeles. He began Xiu Xiu in 2002 and began to waste his life.
This review of Morrissey’s Low in High School was very challenging. On alpha-and-omega personal levels, Morrissey is hands-down my favorite lyricist, the one from whom I have learned and stolen the most. Though Morrissey might not approve of the religious association here, to me, he is the Father. The albums he made with the Smiths and His solo records will forever be in my lifelong top 10: The first time I ever had sex in an appropriate way was while listening to Hatful of Hollow. I had a Smiths poster on bedroom wall until I was 32. I have seen Morrissey in concert more than any other artist. My brother, barber, and first boyfriend all have Morrissey tattoos. He is very important to me, and I feel unworthy of critiquing the man who essentially raised me musically. Essentially, I want to believe in Him. I have, since I was a teenager, needed to believe.
It was also challenging because His last record was unlistenable. 2009’s Years of Refusal is one of His best ever ever ever, but I couldn’t even get through 2014’s World Peace is None of Your Business. I was shocked—maybe I just hate dogs? Either way, because of it, I nervously entered into writing this nervously.
A close friend of mine who has always hated the Moz has spared no opportunity to inform me of all His awful, googly-eyed, and peculiar political statements o’er the last couple years. The internet bores the daylights out of me, so I have never read any of them, but enough mentions from this friend (NAMED FABRIZIO PALUMBO!) have led me to believe He is going nuts. Considering my infotainment blackout re: all He may or may not have meant or said, this review will only be about Low in High School itself. I don’t have the heart, stomach, or time to investigate the context.
Most people listen to Morrissey for the lyrics and vocals. Unlike the Smiths, the music is usually (but not always) borderline superfluous. However, in this case, the writing, arrangements and production (RIGHT ON, Joe Chiccarelli and band!) are remarkably diverse, gutsy, and creatively hefty on nearly every song. Since what is usually the more important aspect of Morrissey’s music—the lyrics—prove rather quickly to actually be the more problematic on Low in High School, it seems necessary to take an un-special and clunky—but clear—approach. Forward, we shall ride song by song, and forward, we shall ride upon the best and worst lines of each.
“My Love, I’d Do Anything for You”
Ooooooooh, fantastic ghost creepazoid wailing as an opener into a thick-ass horn section blast-off! An excellent start! YES! But AHHHHH, DAMN IT, in less than four lines, He’s ragging on “mainstream media,” and asking us to “teach your kids to recognize and despise all the propaganda.” WTF!?!?!?!?!
But then—and this defines the whole record—He confuses everything by saying, “You know me well, my love, I’d do anything for you.” He sings this so convincingly and with such swagger that you think for a moment He will rescue the previously stated mess. But it just pointlessly and incongruously straddles dunce politics and proclamations of personal love and loyalty without ever really connecting them. The band burns awesomely on, but their efforts are ruined by the above.
Best lyrics: “Weren’t we all born to mourn and to yawn at the occupations?”
Worst lyrics: “Society’s hell.”
“I Wish You Lonely”
Bravo title! Bravo music! Bravo singing voice!
But then this limps along into some amorphous, just-OK Mozisms about dislike and vitriol vs. YOU. Then, with no warning, this becomes just-OK Mozisms about dislike and vitriol vs. soldiers and heroin and animal cruelty. It is a song about EVERYTHING and, therefore, not very much.
“Tombs full of fools who gave their life upon command.” Bravo again! But, then, he starts on about “romance gone wrong.” ?! He tellingly then sings that this is “routine for me.” Maybe I am not sharp enough to catch how sharp it is to write a song that is about 30-odd years of one’s routine thoughts and obsessions? I hope so…? I hope I am missing something…? Where’s this gone?
Best lyrics (and this is fucking good): “I wish you lonely like the last tracked humpback whale chased by gun ships from Bergen. But never giving in!” (THERE HE IS!!!!!!)
Worst lyrics: Just the overall uuuuuuuh? of how it is organized.
“Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on the Stage”
This, more or less, seems to be about love lost and the solution being a misguided YA/Brooklyn/Silverlake interpretation of “performing.” (A word only used, without snickering, by assholes.) “Jacky’s only happy when she’s up on the stage.” Who gives a fuck? But: The drums sound good, the strings sound really good, and the weird, pitch-shifted outro vocals are amazing.
Best lyrics (and I have to reach for this): “Jacky cracks when she isn’t on stage / See the effects of sexual neglect.”
Worst lyrics: “Scene six: This country is making me sick.” The last minute-plus is a repetition of the line, “Everybody’s running to the exit.” Oh, well.
“Home Is A Question Mark”
This sounds familiar, not in a comfortable and embracing way, but in a way that this is the type of Moz jam one usually skips in search of a sure-to-be-coming-up-next masterpiece. Complaints about the music biz are even more boring than the actual music business. However, the man has been hung out to dry more viciously than most, and wringing out the bad parts of dullness are why we relate to Him.
The très cool guitar sounds and riffs verge on making up for this. He nearly saves everything with a final reveille high note, sounding as believably wretched and wrenched as ever. From an arrangement standpoint, it is magnificently and stupendously bizarre to end it so abruptly.
Best lyrics: “If I get there, would you meet me? Wrap your legs around my face just to greet me?” He probably knew this was the high point of this song, as it is repeated more than once.
Worst lyrics: There really are not any super-notably-great nor super-dubious lines. This song is like bread before dinner: Did it happen?
“Spent the Day in Bed”
This begins with a wonderful electric piano intro that is nothing like He has ever done before. There are cuckoo electronic sounds and funny-in-a-good way envelope follower beeps high in the mix. But then it gets DUMB. For some reason, He thinks that we need to be instructed to “Stop watching the news. Because the news contrives to frighten you,” over and over.
The line “I spent the day in bed” seems like it could ease the steam of life by allowing us the blah sin we all commit, or long to commit, on bad days. Instead, turns it into something one’s half-baked, right-wing nutball grandma would say to your 11-year-old nephew. Especially odd, as the the majority of the record is deeply left wing. Anyone who listens to His music is well beyond needing to hear shitty generalized advice about sub-political politics.
The refrain is great, the music is great; His voice is great; the end is delightful barfing space noises. But more than half of the lyrics are maddeningly callow and just asinine in a way that is unparalleled in His gifts to us. I so badly want this song to have better lyrics. I wish I didn’t speak English, as this would be one of my favorites otherwise. (I am sure some Tom Zé songs have stupid lyrics, too, but since I don’t speak Portuguese, they all sound brilliant.)
Best lyrics: “All my dreams are perfectly legal.” And, “I spent the day in bed, you can please yourself.” And, “No bus, no boss.”
Worst lyrics: The rest of this baffling song.
“I Bury the Living”
The long and cool cricket-and-viola intro morphing into an analog synth-sequencer bass line is a surprise. Suspense builds as the song heads into the only coherent political view on the record. It is anti-soldier—not anti-war, but anti-soldier. It is the view we should all have. Wars exist because people choose to fight them; because soldiers choose to follow orders.
He forces the issue of responsibility where it belongs: on the lost and violent individual who commits murder for money. A hilarious line, “Funny how the war goes on without our John, la la la la la la la la,” is a fabulous fuck-you to military families who do not seem willing to consider the deaths and dismemberments their John has inflicted likely 50-fold over on other significantly less fortunate brown families all over the developing world. This sentiment chimes over plaintive acoustic guitar. It is as good as the song “Meat Is Murder.”
Best lyrics: “Call me brave, call me a peacemaking hero, call me anything, except what I am.” He is finally showing restraint and respect for the listener’s intelligence by not filling in the blank. “Give me an order, and I’ll blow up your daughter.” “You can’t blame me, I’m just an innocent soldier.” Then it falls apart a little and gets a bit ham-fisted:
Worst lyrics: “Honor-mad cannon fodder” would be a good line, were it said once. Alas, it repeats over and over. I don’t think a message needs to be made SO clear through repetition, but I am impressed he is stating it at all.
“In Your Lap”
UGH, just UGH. I want to love this, but it is impossible. The uncharacteristically average piano goes on and on and on and on and on and on. It seems like this song will never end. I have never felt this way before about Him. The idea of trying to find love or affection in a time of revolt is beautiful, but, strangely, the lyrics go off in a direction of unfunny obviousness. Je suis BUMMED.
Best lyrics: “I just want my face in your lap.” More crotch smashing! I appreciate the sexual focus! This could have been amazing were it not couched (or crouched) in overdone clever-esque platitudes and underdone clever-esque rhymes.
Worst lyrics: “The Arab Spring called us all, the people win when the dictators fall.” He just seems to think we are dopes now. Oh, I didn’t know this. Thank you, Moz, we appreciate your subtlety! Please don’t give it all away!
“The Girl From Tel Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel”
This is almost the same song as above, without the delight of “I just want my face in your lap.” I can’t bear to write this all again.
“All the Young People Must Fall in Love”
This, too, has a super-promising intro with a brilliant Os Mutantes fuzz-guitar sound. And then, again, FUCK, WHAT WHAT WHAT WHAT WHY?!?!?!?
Again, I can’t pick the best lyrics. They are plain and declarative about nuclear war and presidents and dead skunks and decapitated babies. YES, these things are bad. We got it. As with many of the other songs, the refrain, “All the young people, they must fall in love,” holds such melodic and emotional promise and then is caltropped by boring, undeveloped, uninteresting political ideas dropped from the back of this otherwise dope getaway car of a piece of music.
All the sentiments I agree with and you agree with, but they don’t illuminate or broaden or inspire anything AT ALL. It is like saying the full moon is beautiful. Yes, and?
The best part is when He just sings, “MMMMMMM, uh, MMMMMM.”
“When You Open Your Legs”
As He made a few mentions to Mama Roma on Ringleader of the Tormentors, He makes a few to Mama Tel Aviv on Low in High School. This is a pretty good self-pity ditty. The chorus melody is swooning enough to touch the buttons you want Him to touch. It reuses a quasi-klezmer, quasi-martial, quasi-cowboy horn theme that occurs in other songs, which may be on purpose, in which case, it is kind of cool, as the song reprises national locations and other mentions of opening one’s legs in the same way that this happens on Ringleader of the Tormentors. He brings back around bringing it back around. It ends compactly, like many of His better songs. Its point is made, and then it’s O.U.T. OUT!
Best lyrics: “Everything I know deserts me now when you open your legs.”
Worst lyrics: Hey, they are all pretty good! HOORAY!!!!!!!! And: Whew!
“Who Will Protect Us From the Police?”
The groove is grooving, and it starts out like He has something to say: “Say, ‘Daddy, who will protect us from the police?'” Then it gets immediately dreary with his nine-millionth references to fundamentalist atheism: “‘Baby, God will.'” “Say, ‘Daddy, I am sorry, I just cannot believe you.'”
Spiritual or anti-spiritual fundamentalism of any kind is an establishment snoozefest, especially when He’s written about the latter since the mid-’80s. YES, we know You don’t believe in God and think it is dumb to do so. We want to know more about You. We need You to tell us more about us. Holy cats! He almost turns it on its head with a single mention of, “We must be killed for what we believe.” But it does not go anywhere, just back into the jelly morass.
The music is pretty smoking all the way through, with hot synths, drum fills, and horn blasts. His singing is as strong and mighty as ever. Which, considering the bottom-of-His-barrel lyrics, it begs the question: Does the mind rule the body, or does the body rule the mind? (Sorry, I just needed to think about some good Morrissey lyrics for a second.)
Best lyrics: They are all lame.
Worst lyrics: “Tanks on the streets attacking free speech. We must pay for what we believe.” Duh.
Oh, boy. For one second, I thought this might be a Banshees cover. Alas, it is very thing you fear: more of the same pablum farting on rad production, playing, and singing. He weaves in and out of subtweet-level political statements and soaring, sweetie-pie personal statements, I think? It is a hard song for me to follow. Does He mean Israel, specifically, or any puritanical religious state, like Amerikkka, Iran, or Nigeria? When his words here are considered as a broader metaphor, it becomes potentially more meaningful, but, if “Israel” is a comment on his last expatriate vacation to Tel Aviv and Christianity, we have heard it before on this record and many many of His others. I let fly a heavy sigh. Israel.
Worst lyrics: “You realize, if you’re happy, Jesus sends you straight to hell. Israel.” Anyone with a brain is beyond needing to be lead through this wilderness by Papa. He saves the “thought” a little with:
Best lyrics (so to speak): “Should you dare enjoy your body, here tolls Hades’ welcome bell. Israel.” It’s the same idea as the worst line, just not as idiotically blatant.
As a musician, it has not been lost on me that, in the case of Low in High School, many of the sins of the Father are, often, the sins of this son. (I just wanted to make sure you knew I know.) Anything mean or unflattering written in this review is done with an unhappy heart and a leaden finger. I wanted to love this record, and I want to keep loving Him. Mostly, as far as the latter goes, I still do—maybe more privately than before? I still won’t read all that is floating around on the internet that He said or didn’t say. Why bother? Not that I want to preserve an idol for myself, for I have many less ambiguous other ones. There are infinitely more consequential, more evil, more destructive, and more terrifyingly heartless, past-middle age white dudes whipping up the end of time to be too concerned with what diarrhea Morrissey may or may not spurt out and we may or may not slide through. I still have faith He will return to Earth one day and redeem Himself for us. Amen.