Morrissey Trades Subtle Wit for Spite and Vitriol on ‘Low In High School’

There’s a notable trend when it comes to Morrissey’s last few studio albums: Each drips with more bitterness and displacement than its salty predecessor. In fact, Morrissey being upset about something has come to be expected. It’s why he’s both loathed and beloved, simultaneously propped up as a voice for those on the fringe and decried as a diva with a pension for bellyaching. Full of a rare mischief and gushing with relatable moodiness, Morrissey’s lyrics spoke to angsty teens in the throes of adolescence not quite sure how to find their place on this big, scary rock called Earth. Those confused kids turned to The Smiths and later Morrissey’s solo work for comfort. Those who try doing the same with “Low in High School,” Moz’s 11th and most contemptuous foray yet, might not feel so comforted.

“Society is Hell,” Morrissey cries on opening cut “My Love, I’d Do Anything For You,” and just like that he has laid his thesis out on the table, and he spends the record building on that idea, whether he’s weaving an intense narrative about abuses of power on “Who Will Protect Us From The Police” or snidely rebuking the military on practically every other track. But the subtlety for which his lyricism is praised is glaringly absent, and in its place is a wealth of vitriol and a spiteful sneer. The bitterly titled “I Wish You Lonely” takes the first of many jabs at war and the soldiers entwined therein as Morrissey sinisterly describes“tombs full of fools who gave their life upon command/of monarchy, oligarch, head of state, potentate/and now never coming back.” “I Bury The Living” only heaps more kindling on the fire as he takes a soldier’s point of view and cries, “just military servants … there would be no war if not for me/I’m just a sweet little soldier.” This cut eventually sprawls out into something reminiscent of a march to war, and it’s haunting thanks to Moz’s gleefully high register taking aim at bereaved parents. It’s a biting satire, one where the teeth dig in a little too deeply.

As is usually the case with Morrissey, it’s unclear if he thirsts for revolution or something more explicit. It’s an idea he toys with throughout “Low in High School,” which is full of references to promiscuity, from “In Your Lap,” where he casually shrugs off the notion of a political uprising in favor of oral indulgence, to “When You Open Your legs,” a number whose title more than speaks for itself. Even the sweet pop of “All The Young People Must Fall in Love” pushes sex as a kind of escapism from the horrors the rest of the record’s songs explore, while “Home is a Question Mark” finds him asking, “If I ever get there/would you meet me?/wrap your legs around my face just to greet me?”

The first half of “Low In High School” offers a promising taste of Morrissey’s knack for penmanship and melodies (see the brooding pop of “Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up On The Stage” and the futuristic flourish of “Spent The Day In Bed), but getting through the back half is a tall order for even the most devoted. The aforementioned “Who Will Protect Us From The Police” squelches and bangs as shrill synths do sonic battle with a pounding bass line while listeners’ ears get caught in the crosshairs. “The Girl From Tel-Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel” might just have you wringing your hands in defeat by the time the homage to tropicalia hits the halfway point, and the reward is minimal for those who do make it out the other side. But perhaps the album’s most grating track is its last. Simply titled “Israel,” the towering ballad smacks of condescension, with Morrissey offering his insights into the Arab-Israeli conflict with the air of someone who has figured it all out. Only he hasn’t figured anything out, and the only thing listeners will come away with is a bad taste in their mouths. Albums like “Low in High School” highlight artists who are able to keep their personal beliefs separate from the art  they create. Unfortunately, Morrissey is not such a creator, with his polarizing stances snaking their way into his music and, at times, poisoning his songs before they can fully take root.

Low In High School” is available Nov. 17 on Apple Music.