I’m probably not the first person ever to ask this, but I find myself compelled. Is Morrissey—world-class pop star, self-described “famous international playboy,” and my perennial idol—actually Katharine Hepburn?
Let me explain. In David Lean’s glorious film Summertime (1955), Hepburn is Jane Hudson of Akron, Ohio. An inhibited, externally tough but interiorly fragile middle-aged Midwestern woman, Hudson is an executive assistant and neophyte tourist visiting Venice after “saving up for such a long time” (saving up more than just money, if her ideas about love and sex revealed later in the film are any indication). Something happens to her there, and it has at least as much to do with the way Lean’s camera uses Technicolor to capture Venice in the summertime as it does with the film’s narrative, in which Hudson succumbs to first the idea, then the act of a reckless, hopeless romantic fling. She is seduced not so much by the man—a handsome but ultimately interchangeable Continental played by Rossano Brazzi—as she is by the city itself, which in the film represents something infinitely more experienced, wise, and erotically splendiferous than the sheltered America of the 1950s (which is to say her experience up to now). She is passionate about Venice—its canals, its streets, its piazzas, all ravishing—and it seems in the film that Venice reciprocates by offering her one sensual, unfettered experience after another; even Hudson’s moments of emotional crisis, as played by Hepburn against this background, seem sensuously melodramatic.
Recorded in Rome, Morrissey’s new album, Ringleader of the Tormentors, evinces no less of a transformational, passion-inducing trip to unfamiliar southern regions than Hepburn’s/Hudson’s. “The heart feels free,” he sings over and over again at the end of “Dear God Please Help Me,” one of the album’s choicest selections; and the feeling of freedom is due as much to Rome as to his apparently having just succumbed with languor to the temptations of the flesh, Cruise-and-Pick-Up Division (or so the lyrics suggest—see below). Rome and Italy are all over the album, from its contents to its packaging: “Registrato é Mescolato a Roma Estate” proclaims the Deutsche Grammophone-like title banner on the cover, while the inner sleeve finds a photo of Moz on a Vespa (the graffiti in the carefully handpicked background reads “SMASH BUSH”) and a full-page close-up of an anachronistic Medal of Honor from some Italian Ministry of Culture or other. In keeping with Italy’s valid claim to being the most musical country in world cultural history, Moz poses as a bow-tied violin player in the beautiful black-and-white cover image, which now contends with Your Arsenal as the most transfixing album sleeve of Morrissey’s solo career.
“Parochial” is a word Morrissey has recently used about his previously insular attitude toward being English and neglecting to explore the world outside; that word almost seems a cliché when it comes to describing Hepburn and her character in Summertime (really, when did Hepburn ever NOT play herself?). Both Hudson/Hepburn and Moz have English accents, really good grammar, and an impeccable expertise at using words to forestall and cope with such vulgar things as having a human body and physical urges. To top it all off, both of them have cherubic muses in secondary roles: Hepburn has the adorable little guttersnipe Mauro (Gaetano Auterio) to bemuse her and ease her into the street life of Venice; Morrissey has rounded up an Italian children’s choir to sing along on three tracks, most strikingly on “The Youngest Was the Most Loved,” where they join in for a taunting chorus of “there is no such/thing in life as normal” that just makes you think to yourself, “Kids really do say the darndest things!”
The story of both album and film is the story of the spirit of Italy, its Mediterranean sea and sunshine, beckoning to someone who’s been parochial and physically timid (albeit independent, rich in personality, and smart as a whip) but is now ready to lose their inhibitions; leave their comfort zone; experience the things they long for that their culture and upbringing have painted as frivolous, foolish, or naughty; and, at long last, take their place in the sun. It’s a journey often represented metaphorically as being from north to south; from one state of mind and being to another; from a Puritanical society to a sex-positive one; and from repressive inhibition to full-blooded experience. This kind of liberating journey (not, of course, without its potential pitfalls) was one of the most cherished 20th century mythological tropes: see also Giovanni’s Room, Death in Venice, and The Sheltering Sky.
Having mentioned those titles, all by gay or bisexual men who found more room to breathe by traveling to and living in far-off places, now is as good a time as any to bring up the much-discussed homoeroticism of Ringleader of the Tormentors. It should be noted from the first that neither the topic of carnality (same-sex or otherwise) nor Morrissey’s willingness to approach it bluntly are new to this album. That has been the mistaken assessment of many reviewers, who are either unaware or have conveniently forgotten that sex and sexuality—along with their myriad manifestations, complications, and intrigues—are actually among Morrissey’s most relished and recurrent themes. Those themes are, however, approached on the new album in a way that is more directly involved. Before, on songs as disparate in tone and intent as “Handsome Devil,” “Stretch Out and Wait,” “Alsatian Cousin,” and “Wide to Receive”—each fairly explicit, ribald, and eyebrow-raising in its own inimitable way—there was an incisive, beautifully articulated astuteness and a kind of knowing detachment when it came to sex, all of which frequently gave the lie to Morrissey’s reductive detractors by resulting in some damn funny lyrics (“A note upon his desk: ‘P.S. bring me home and have me’ and “But on the desk is where I want you,” the great parallel lines from “Alsatian Cousin,” never fail to put a wry smile on my face).
Now, on Ringleader, the sex carries with it a tremulousness that connotes an acceptance and pursuit of—even an immersion in—the experience. There’s still a kind of humor (“there are explosive kegs/between my legs,” he sings on “Dear God Please Help Me”), but there’s an increasing comfort with his own desire: later in the same song, he sings, “Now I’m spreading your legs/With mine in between,” and the Ennio Morricone-orchestrated setting and the intensity of his singing makes it a proclamation both joyous and solemn, even quite romantically tender, but definitely not a joke. After the “a boy in the bush is worth two in the hands” and “when we’re in your scholarly room/who will swallow whom?” debauchery of “Handsome Devil,” Morrissey’s conclusion is, “There’s more to life than books, you know/But not much more;” on “Dear God, Please Help Me,” the result of getting to know someone in the biblical sense is the aforementioned exhilarated heart-freedom. The fact that the value of the erotic has definitely gone up in Morrissey’s emotional currency converter is something readily apparent on this album, which ends with the triumphant “At Last I am Born,” “born” in this case meaning a newfound recognition of the physical part of being human: “I once was a mess/Of guilt because of the flesh/It’s remarkable what you can learn/Once you are born” are the words with which Morrissey closes the album.
Oh, I nearly forgot that I said homoeroticism (happily, these distinctions are blurred to the point of inscrutability when we’re discussing this great artist). Much is being made, in most Web discussions and many press reviews, of the verse, “Then he motions to me/With his hand on my knee/Dear God, did this kind of thing happen to you?” which, it has to be admitted, is almost impossible not to interpret to mean that Morrissey’s hunter/prey in this scenario is male. But too much has been made of this, especially in light of the fact that Morrissey has never been as rigorous about his no-gender-specific-pronouns rule as it is easy to assume: There is a “young girl” object of affection in “Disappointed” and a “woman of my dreams” in “I’m Not Sorry,” and that’s not even getting into all the times Morrissey has imaginatively re-gendered himself by being “a working girl” (“Maladjusted”) or following “You’re a girl and I’m a boy” with “I’m a girl and you’re a boy” (“Sheila Take a Bow”). For the particular emotional state and experience embodied by “Dear God, Please Help Me,” there either may have been a real male, or Morrissey imagined the scenario as occurring with a male; it’s not much of an earth-shattering confession, nor do I think it was ever meant to be. Nobody who has paid the slightest attention to Morrissey’s work could have an easy time convincing themselves that the man has not slept with both men and women in his time, and his preferences are not nearly so clear-cut as most of ours. The only conclusion we can accurately draw is that it is Morrissey’s belief that there are at least some universals in sexual and romantic experience that render orientation and gender irrelevant. It is an indispensable part of Morrissey’s singularity that the already complicated areas of gender, sex, and sexuality are evidently that much more labyrinthine for him than for the rest of us, who usually find that we swing more one way than another and are okay, even if only for convenience’s sake, with saying “I’m gay” or “I’m straight.” This perceptual disparity between Morrissey and the rest of us probably has a lot to do with the fact that he’s the last pop star of his kind and we’re not; he does everything the hard way (or “My Way,” in the sense of the Sinatra tune so beloved by Morrissey), and it’s a goldmine of artistic inspiration and integrity for him.
The first single, “You Have Killed Me,” follows “Dear God, Please Help Me” in the album’s sequence and furthers Morrissey’s “sexy” new attitude in a more minor way, proffering the playful line--ripe for both above- and below-belt interpretations--“I entered nothing/and nothing entered me/’Til you came with the key.” More striking on this track are the “Pasolini is me”-type references to Italy and its renowned cinema, which also extends to Visconti (Luchino, not producer Tony) and Anna Magnani (who starred in Pasolini's Mamma Roma); the Pasolini reference in particular acts as a nice segue as the album proceeds to “The Youngest Was the Most Loved” and “The Father Who Must be Killed,” both of which contain narrative elements straight out of one of Pasolini’s troubled (or should I say tormented?) cinematic scenarios.
Of course, not every moment on Ringleader of the Tormentors is Italian cinephilia or a tryst at the periphery of a piazza or otherwise evocative of Rome in any literal way. The scattered direct references to Rome are the tip of an iceberg of newfound adventurousness and relaxation that is sonically apparent throughout: every song is not about Rome, but none of them would sound the way they do had the album been made anywhere else. From the outset, Morrissey’s intention was clearly to have a new sound, not to make You Are the Quarry II. The intriguing possibility of having Jeff Saltzman (who ably produced the nice debut album of Morrissey’s quasi-protégés, The Killers) helm this one fizzled out pretty quickly (rumor has it that Saltzman actually began production, then was “unable” to manage the job). It was at that point that Morrissey rang legendary producer Tony Visconti (you can read about it here), the behind-the-soundboards genius responsible for the auras of such essential pop albums as T. Rex’s Electric Warrior and The Slider; Bowie’s Space Oddity and immanent “Berlin Trilogy” (Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger); and Sparks’s Indiscreet.
When the Magnetic Fields’ Stephen Merritt complained, in a New York Times review of You Are the Quarry, about what he considered “warmed-over arena rock backdrops” on that album, he exposed his failure—typical of an American reviewer, no matter how much he wants to be the Human League—to understand Morrissey’s pop classicism, the tension borne of wanting to simultaneously be Johnny Rotten and Frank Sinatra, which he has always proudly worn on his sleeve (what would be truly awful, if not unimaginable, is if Morrissey were to adopt what feels like a very thin penchant for showboating yet forgettable novelty that is the mark of a huge slush pile of weak Magnetic Fields material). The new producer doesn’t pull any stunts with the music, then; but what the Visconti Touch does bring to the proceedings is a rich, subtle sound, a multilayered flair that contrasts with the shiny sleekness producer Jerry Finn gave You Are the Quarry (which, it could probably be said, “sounds like” Southern California in the same way Ringleader of the Tormentors “sounds like” the southerly regions of the Continent). Morrissey’s backing rock band still sounds like a rock band (albeit an extraordinarily skilled, confident, elegant, and impassioned one), but there is undeniably something new, sonically speaking, on Ringleader of the Tormentors: nothing Morrissey has ever done before prepares you for the twitch and clatter of “I Will See You in Far-Off Places,” the Persian exotica-tinged opening number. Nor, for that matter, does anything on previous efforts truly resemble the polyrhythmic “The Father Who Must Be Killed” or the epic-length (seven minutes) drama-queen star turn “Life is a Pigsty.” The latter is gorgeously accompanied by thunder-and-rain sound effects and, as has been pointed out numerous times in other appreciations of the album, contains a lovely nod to Visconti’s fabled Bowie association: the song unexpectedly quarters its tempo in its second “movement” for a spare, hauntingly melodic “Space Oddity”-like strum (also, although Visconti didn’t produce Bowie’s piano-infused Aladdin Sane, the luscious arpeggios on “I’ll Never Be Anybody’s Hero Now” are unmistakably reminiscent of that record).
With its four discrete yet connected parts, “Life is a Pigsty” plays almost like a suite, and it seems to be widely considered the album’s best track; it is undoubtedly the most ambitious. If I had to pick a favorite from this stellar set, it would be “Dear God Please Help Me” or “At Last I am Born,” but “Life is a Pigsty” does excellently encapsulate the ever-tantalizing mystery of Morrissey: His outrageously excessive, theatrical displays of emotion should be cheesy, but instead they’re profoundly moving (this could be a truism which applies to all great pop music). Morrissey shares with Oscar Wilde (his literary hero) and cinematic melodrama-meister Douglas Sirk a wit that transcends irony—a wit that knows artifice, no matter how blatant, to be the best, most resonant route for delivering emotional truth.
Both “Life is a Pigsty” and “Dear God Please Help Me” are quasi-parallel microcosms of the album’s overall arc, which comprises a strong through-line which renders it the most of a piece of all Morrissey’s albums (for some trenchant comments on the effectiveness of the sequencing, as well as other fine insights, see Jamie S. Rich’s review). Both songs begin on a somber or despondent note and then rise over the rest of their courses to a kind of euphoric, liberated epiphany. In both cases, it’s “love,” that mercurial and elusive phantom of all great pop music, that refracts the deep disappointment of life through a consolatory prism. On “Dear God Please Help Me,” a virtually sacramental illicit tryst renders our grateful, finally free-hearted hero no longer in need of divine aid. On “Life is a Pigsty,” Morrissey’s voice is so powerfully desperate as he sings, “Can you please stop time/Can you stop this pain?” and “I can’t reach you, I can’t reach you anymore” that the listener can actually visualize him falling to his knees in a fit of passion, Johnnie Ray style; the song’s defiantly triumphant closing line, which Morrissey sings over and over, is “Even now/In the final hour/Of my life/I’m falling in love again, again, again, again.”
In turn, the album as a whole is a darkest-hour-is-before-the-dawn affair, the happiness of its ending all the more poignant for being so hard-won. The first half is a full day for Moz as he tackles the world’s ever more war-torn state (“I Will See You in Far Off Places”), ponders the randomness of circumstance and experience (“The Youngest Was the Most Loved”), experiences the pleasure and pain of human connection (“Dear God Please Help Me” and “You Have Killed Me”) and looks cheerfully askance at what’s to come (“In the Future When All’s Well”). Then there is a twilight that segues into a dark and stormy night of the soul: “The Father Who Must Be Killed” is the most super-catchy pop-rock anthem about (step) patricide ever, and its disconcerting, nightmarish quality leads us into the second half of the album, where the tossing and turning continues with “Life is a Pigsty,” “I’ll Never Be Anybody’s Hero Now,” and “On the Streets I Ran.” Those last two find Morrissey grappling with his working-class roots in a more autobiographical and direct way than ever before, his reminiscences filtered through moods ranging from mournful (“Haves cannot stand have-nots” on “I’ll Never Be Anybody’s Hero Now”) to disdainful relief at having escaped (“And all these streets can do/Is claim to know the real you/And warn if you don’t leave you will kill or be killed” on “On the Streets I Ran”).
But then Morrissey wakes up and hears the birds chirping in the rising sun: “To Me You Are a Work of Art” again finds him staring down the possibility of (gulp) love, singing, “I see the world, it makes me puke/But then I look a you/And know that somewhere there’s a someone who can soothe me.” “I Just Want to See the Boy Happy” is a blistering New York Dolls-style raunch-rock rave-up on which Morrissey self-abnegates himself, in an oddly intense (sublimated?) avuncular mode, for the happiness of a younger man (for more blatant NY Dolls worship, see the brilliant cover of “Human Being” on the b-side of the “You Have Killed Me” single). Finally, for the show-stopping conclusion, there is “At Last I am Born,” a happy and good-humored symphony of cheer. Yes, you heard me: the tongue is still in the cheek, the imperiousness intact (“I once thought that time/Accentuates despair/But now I don’t actually care”), but the song is unmistakably life affirming. Sonically, too: the twanging guitars, spoken-word interludes, and kettle drums are spectacularly ornate, and, again, quite unlike most anything Morrissey has done before; the children’s choir returns for an encore round of tuneful “la, las,” and while the children’s role has heretofore been to provide a taunting gang of urchins to Morrissey’s Fagin, here they sound like a circle of cherubs raining rose petals on his newfound lust for life.
Ringleader of the Tormentors is the sound of Morrissey letting his eyes scan the landscape of human nature and fate from the gutter all the way up to the loftiest stars and, like Hepburn’s Jane Hudson, learning to accept the unpredictably cyclical, reckless, precipitate—and indispensable—nature of sex, love, and romance. It’s a lesson that Morrissey admits, on “At Last I am Born,” it took him a “long, long time” to learn, but it’s a rebirth that’s as palpable and joyous for the listener as it so obviously is for the singer. From the point of view of those of us for whom Morrissey has long been friend, mentor, father figure, and feverishly obsessive object of veneration and/or affection, the album represents a whole new side of a familiar and beloved personality; it’s like seeing the lonely, beloved “confirmed-bachelor” uncle who generously exposed you to great books, music, and film finally find love in his autumn years, long after everyone thought it was too late. It’s a real revelation and rejuvenation; even if you’ve always been dedicated to this final truly great pop icon—the last of a frankly exclusive family line also including Noel Coward, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, and Bowie—immersing yourself in the experience, the journey that is Ringleader of the Tormentors feels like falling in love again, again, again, again.
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