“Society’s hell/ you need me, just like I need you,” sings Morrissey on My Love, I’d Do Anything for You. This seems a neat enough summary of his oeuvre: at once political and personal, isolationist and needy, revelling in contradiction.
Low in High School, his 11th solo album, is as dazzling and infuriating as anything in his canon, full of the stuff that has made the 58-year-old former Smiths frontman one of the most provocative and adored stars of our time.
Here are more songs of anger and compassion ambiguously mixed up with narcissism and misanthropy, where you are never quite sure whether the singer feels more moved by the state of the world or the state of his own love life.
This central mystery is addressed unusually directly in the bruised piano ballad In Your Lap, in which he shrugs off revolution to focus on desire: “They tried to wipe us clean off the map/ And I just want your face in my lap.”
On the fantastically propulsive single Spent the Day in Bed and the shaggily upbeat protest ditty All the Young People Must Fall in Love, he seems to advocate amorous retreat as a political position.
Elsewhere, though, fear and anger are more direct. Who Will Protect Us from the Police? is a sinister, pulsing rocker that ends with Morrissey repeatedly wailing “Venezuela” as his embattled characters flee for their lives. I Bury the Living is a dark satire of “honour mad cannon fodder” with the sad coda “It’s funny how the war goes on/ Without our John.”
Morrissey is, as usual, eminently quotable, his elegant lyrics mixing elevated and colloquial language in ways that trip off the tongue. What is often overlooked, though, is his musical flair, but the best of his solo work is easily a match for what he achieved with The Smiths.
Morrissey has a rich gift for melody and, over the years, has assembled a talented band of players and co-writers capable of concocting intense rock, atmospheric balladry and baroque guitar pop, where electric elements are superbly balanced by horns and orchestra.
The album closes with the towering ballad Israel, a defence of the state that seems almost designed to provoke certain elements of his fan base. It affirms Morrissey’s instinct for mischief, which is felt, too, in I Wish You Lonely. Here he asks listeners to imagine what it might be like to be Morrissey for just one day, ending on the image of himself as “the last tracked hunchback whale/ chased by gunships” but (he asserts with a flourish) “never giving in! Never giving in!” Just so.