Morrissey has always struck me as the rock'n'roll equivalent of Kenneth Williams: a tormented fellow in whom the warring tropes of humour and bitterness, self-pity and self-loathing, are barely held in some creatively efficacious equilibrium. Like Williams, Morrissey has a high regard for his own intellect. And also like Williams, he is a man whose art pivots on sexual confusion, the discomfiting tangles of which he avoids by a very public profession of celibacy.
Until now, that is. Ringleader of the Tormentors is quite unlike any previous Morrissey or Smiths recording, in that its creator is clearly experiencing the giddy thrill of romance, judging by songs such as "Dear God, Please Help Me" and "To Me You Are a Work of Art". In the former, a suitably sepulchral organ - ooh no, stop messin' about! - underscores his revelation that "There are explosive kegs/ Between my legs", and a shimmer of tremulous strings accompanies his furtive encroachment between another's legs; in the latter, translucent violin and descending guitar lines embroider his admission that "I see the world, it makes me puke/ But then I look at you and know that somewhere there's a someone that could suit me". It's extraordinary, quite unexpected: just a few years short of his half-century, Morrissey has fallen in love. He seems as surprised as anyone about this development, too. "Once I was a mess of guilt because of the flesh, but now I am born!" he exults in the closing "At Last I Am Born", and you can't help but be touched for him.
Not, of course, that exposure to amore has completely turned his head. There are enough grouches and grumbles here to satisfy the most ardent miserabilist, with a familiar cast of typical Morrissey characters: authority targets such as "The Father Who Must Be Killed" and artistic souls trapped in brutish environments in "On the Streets I Ran". And as if he were worried that the album might be too heavy with love, there's a wallow in spite and self-pity on "Life Is a Pigsty", nearly eight minutes of bilious contempt.
Musically, it's both tougher and lusher than You Are the Quarry, with proper orchestrations replacing that album's nasty synthetic strings. Recorded in Rome with glam-rock backroom genius Tony Visconti in the producer's chair, there's an elegant muscularity about the arrangements, which feature new guitarist Jesse Tobias playing Mick Ronson to Moz's Bowie. All of which makes Ringleader of the Tormentors the most intriguing entry in the Morrissey canon for quite some time.
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