Ringleader of the Tormenters
ike his consensus best solo album Vauxhall and I, Morrissey’s 2004’s comeback You Are the Quarry ended in immolation. It was his last roll of the dice and he was going out with all guns blazing; “evil legal eagles,” “northern leaches,” “the critics”; all felt his wrath as around him the band kicked up a perfect storm. Ringleader of the Tormenters’ dizzying opener “I Will See You in Far Off Places” throws us without warning straight back into the maelstrom. Swirling Arabic scales and indistinct noise flares from all angles. The signifiers could not be any more obvious; the Middle East, 2006, “if the USA doesn’t bomb you.” Like Quarry’s "America Is Not the World," Morrissey attempts to frame the album in some sort of pseudo-socio-political framework but, as ever, refracted through his somewhat more self-centred concerns. The track, far from being an indictment of US foreign policy, is the kind of frustrated love song that he has made his career on. It’s just that the obstacle to romance is global turmoil, instead of shyness. It doesn’t tell us much about planet earth in 2006, but it’s a good introduction to Morrissey 2006. Having seen off all those demons that have haunted him of late, he is left in a somewhat unfamiliar position.
The words that best describe Quarry seem more suited to high quality yoghurt: organic, rich, smooth, and sophisticated. But despite some horrible synthesized strings, producer Jerry Finn placed Morrissey in a variety of texturally distinct settings that made full use of his richly nuanced croon and obscured the more session musician tendencies of his band. It sounded for the most part summery and welcoming; all very L.A., all decidedly un-Steven Patrick but it suited him—if for a moment. Getting Tony Visconti in on production duties for Ringleader of the Tormenters superficially seems like a master stroke, but all too often his heady atmospherics overpower some rather uninspired compositions. Like his work on Bowie’s Heathen it all gets rather wearing, the songs become indistinct—and not in a particularly interesting way. Instead of the finely grained sepia of Morrissey’s best work, these songs are often rendered monochromatic. Sometimes it resembles the much-maligned-yet-still-fascinating Southpaw Grammar’s grey grandeur newly suffused with orchestration and operatics. Sure, Morrissey saves many a track with half-crazed theatrics, but those moments tend to only come only once you’ve sat through a couple of minutes of stodge.
It seems bizarre that Ringleader of the Tormenters is being billed as Morrissey’s most sexual album. In fact taken as a whole, despite the kind of coy lyrical references that have been his stock in trade for over 20 years, the album feels curiously asexual. Conveying sexual feelings well in popular music is tricky, some of the most sexually charged tracks (“When Doves Cry” and a number of tracks on Sonic Youth’s Evol album come to mind) achieve it purely through viscerally attuned music and some well chosen imagery. Often graphic description is rather off-putting. It’s far more about provoking feelings associated with desire and fulfilment than bald descriptions of “powder kegs between legs.” If David Gedge sang "Sexual Healing" it would probably provoke very different feelings. The Smiths’ early work practically rewrote the rule book on the sexuality in rock music, the repressed taut drive of songs like "These Things Take Time" and "Handsome Devil" spoke a new vocabulary of constantly deferred desire; neither hetero, homo or bi desperate, whilst "This Charming Man" and "Reel Around the Fountain" delighted in the bliss of surrender. Anyone who believed Morrissey’s claims to celibacy was clearly not paying attention.
It’s no surprise that around this time they started calling this stuff “indie”; it just wasn’t quite rock anymore. Ringleader’s stately pacing and assurance could be seen as Morrissey’s final goodbye to that young man in blouse and beads. The music perhaps reflects his new attitude to sex; there are no longer any obstacles to fulfilment, apart from the occasional relapse into catholic guilt. Unfortunately with these obstacles removed he has nothing much to say about the joys of sex beyond acknowledging that he’s had it and yes he enjoys the company of men; these things can’t really come as much of a revelation to anyone but the most casual of fans. (This is the only way of justifying the albums maddening lack of sensuality.)
In fact the album is as much about death as it is sex—often it’s tempting to read in the death of the Morrissey persona ideas that he’s being toying with since he went solo. Yet as "Life Is a Pigsty" seems to confirm, for Morrissey, everything; sex, death, Rome, Los Angeles, jihad when put through his solipsistic world view is a bit of a disappointment and it's those odd moments of bliss that make it all worthwhile. Nothing’s really changed: he’s still shaping triumph from disappointment. And when he soars (and there are many occasions here where he does), he spirals to heights which rival anything in his own or anyone else’s catalogue.
There are no sparkling singles of the "Suedehead" or "First of the Gang to Die" variety, but each of this collection of songs has some slight touch that elevates it above average. The moment when a choir of children join him on "The Youngest Was The Most Loved" to chant “there’s no such thing as normal” is as magical as anything you’ll hear this year. And, when they reappear on the Freud-goes-glam stomp of "The Father Who Must Be Killed," you can’t quite help but imagine Morrissey leading a small army of youths like some be-quiffed Pied Piper. The finale "At Last I Am Born" is almost a show tune, it sashays merrily whilst our hero, joined again by his child army, declaims that he no longer cares about all those old worries.
Morrissey doesn’t have that much to say now, but it’s never really been just about the words. And when everything fits into place on Ringleader of the Tormenters, he can deliver those sweet-nothings with such panache that it doesn’t really matter anyway.
Reviewed by: Paul Scott
Reviewed on: 2006-04-03