‘I Am Not a Dog on a Chain’ Marks a Sonic Detour for Morrissey

There are few artists with such a commitment to craft as Morrissey. When the Smiths frontman sang the titular refrain of “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” in 1984, the world took notice, but expected him to eventually fall into line like any other mortal. Over three and a half decades later, however, the Moz remains miserable as ever, still donning his trademark quiff, and now vegan leather shoes, belting away in his singular mix of poetry and farce. Fortunately, Morrissey’s latest album, the characteristically titled “I Am Not a Dog on a Chain,” infuses plenty of new energy into a tired routine, with unforeseen sonic experimentation making for a refreshing new update on the tragic hero’s classic sound.

From the onset, the new album takes more new liberties in its instrumentation than anything Morrissey has released in years. Opener “Jim Jim Falls,” named after an Australian plunge waterfall, begins with a lively bass stomp, Morrissey’s voice emerging stark and clear over gliding synths. A premature chorus strikes, and in a flash, the Moz is beaming in full grandeur. Over widely panned, powerful guitars, comes his signature, unhindered, declarative belting, as he addresses the titular location, and edges on, “If you’re going to jump, then jump.” Let’s remember that this is the same artist who described Sylvia Plath’s decision to take her own life “very dignified,” and one who has made a career out of lampooning the very notion of irony. It’s clear from the opener Morrissey’s accent has grown more American over the years, although still with a decidedly English flair, even when his Mancunian instincts are least enunciated. There’s definitely some Johnny Marr quality to the instrumental work, compared to some of the tackier, more vapid productions of Morrissey’s rather patchy solo career, particularly bits from the “You Are the Quarry” era. By the end, synth strings carry Morrissey’s trademark brand of foolishly garish self-importance over the top.

Come “Love Is On Its Way Out,” the Marr element has disappeared, and the sound returned to the dreaded aforementioned low points. One would expect tacky pop of this sort to only ever be engaged in ironically. Then again, what could be more consistent with someone who based his whole brand on being terribly out of touch? The perennially sad, sappy soul seems somewhat especially so now, as we find him covering all the same bases yet again. “The sad rich hunting down, shooting down elephants and lions” is likely a jab at the barbaric pastimes of Donald Trump Jr, and an elusive sound after the line vaguely resembles an animal noise, realling the sounds of groaning cows on “Meat is Murder.” With more people turning vegan today that possibly ever before, the song title seems a little out of place. Yet, it hardly matters when the song takes an unexpected turn near the end. After repeating the eponymous lamentation, Morrissey adds, “But before it goes / Do you have the time to show me / What’s it like,” the music growing fittingly triumphant.  

Single “Bobby, Don’t You Think They Know” is like nothing else in Morrissey’s catalogue. A tune about a character who attempts to hide his drug habit in vain, the song pairs Moz up with Motown legend Thelma Houston, an odd aesthetic pairing, as Morrissey’s singing style is about as far away from “soulful” as possible. Houston’s melismatic R&B delivery juxtaposed with Morrissey’s blend of the genteel and the awkward, makes for a bizarre collaboration, albeit a profoundly interesting one. Houston’s performance is stunning, and the two singers bellow away in tandem, sounding like two raging queens from different planets. An organ solo and then a saxophone make the already rather farcical affair even more ridiculous. Somehow, however, they balance out the affair, bringing more dimension to the music by adding classic, yet intriguing sounds to the mix. Whatever you think of the tune, it’s one of a kind.

The title track is classic Morrissey, with fluttering instrumental melodies that fit his fanciful, frolicsome inflections. If there ever were a definitive Morrissey line, it would be, “I see no point in being nice.” This time, Moz defies the tabloids who have pummeled him in recent years simply because he has, at times, dared deviate from the generic leftist political template expected of an indie icon. “I do not read newspapers / They are troublemakers,” he affirms with gusto, escalating gradually until soaring midsong. “Listen out for what’s not shown to you,” he maintains, “and there you find the truth.” One thing that always stood out about Morrissey was his integrity, and it’s refreshing to hear that he remains as boldly outspoken as ever, regardless of how others esteem his views. 

“What Kind of People Live In These Houses” recalls Morrissey’s early solo output, circa 1991’s  “Kill Uncle,” in its production and overall style. One can tell again that the musicians are making an effort to channel Johnny Marr, perhaps nailing it here more than on any other track. There’s a country feel to parts of the melody, and the guitar fills, starting as just a hint, and by the end, becoming especially pronounced, and setting the song apart from the set. The title recalls the mention of “those ugly new houses” from the Smiths’ “Paint a Vulgar Picture,” and the song is essentially a stream of consciousness ramble in which Morrissey speculates about characters in the suburbs, to little avail. Interestingly, one line, “They look at television, thinking it’s their window to the world,” is strikingly similar to one from “A Different City,” by indie giants Modest Mouse, namely “I’m going to look out the window of my color TV.” Of course, Modest Mouse briefly featured none other than Johnny Marr in their lineup. 

At times, it seems Moz is coming close to exhausting his melodic repertoire. “Knockabout World” features a melody reminiscent of The Smiths’ “Unhappy Birthday,” as well as one that recalls “All the Lazy Dykes” from 1997’s “You Are the Quarry.” Morrissey seems to out-Morrissey himself upon his chorus of “Woah-woah-woah-world,” which would make an excellent animated snippet, replete with the classic, arms flailing, iconic dance. Strings and horns enter and add a “Penny Lane” character for fleeting moments, followed by another end-of-song change of heart, like that on “Love Is On Its Way Out.” After all the moping, Moz changes his tune, and belts out, “By the way, you’re okay by me.” Of course, we know to expect better than an occasional moment of contentment from this artist, so the next song, titled “Darling, I Hug a Pillow,” comes as no surprise. If the ridiculous mariachi trumpets in this song are meant as a nod to Morrissey’s peculiarly devoted Mexican fanbase, he might have done a little better. Otherwise, it’s the usual sentiments, the same flamboyant, lovelorn, antihero. The refrain of “Why can’t you give me some physical love?” is hardly poetic, but then again, was “I am human, and I need to be loved” really much better? 

At this point, the album gets decidedly more adventurous. “Once I Saw the River Clean” begins with an electronic bass stomp like that of the opener, and seems to second its sentiment, with Morrissey following the titular phrase, “And the cue will cue for me.” The backdrop of buzzing noise and haze suits Morrissey surprisingly well, and he reminds us, when the bridge hits, that he’ll never quite lose his penchant for melody. A prominent, treated vocal sample seems out of place at first. However, one need only look back to the Smiths’ “Big Mouth Strikes Again” to see the roots of such experimentation. The leftfield excursions get more ambitious yet on “The Truth About Ruth.” Morrissey is uncharacteristically laconic on this number, although the simple refrain, “Ruth is John,” fits right in with his history of sexual ambiguity. Morrissey sings a poignant melody, presumably with chin perpetually held up, eyebrows furrowed, bleating into distance. What truly stands apart, however, is the ornate, theatrical, circus-ey musical stylings, over which his voice soars to unprecedented heights. Operatic exclamations, crashing thuds, chimes, and rickety percussion create a vivid, immersive soundscape. This is bold, new territory for Morrissey, and you’ve got to hand it to him. He feeds off the colors of the music, and come the second verse, he is in another sphere altogether. 

“The Secret of Music” is the artistic pinnacle of the album, a spacey, amorphous racket, completely unanticipated for Morrissey. No one in their right mind would have fancied him this sonically adventurous. “I am out of tune,” he sings, rather comically, with lyrics and sound matching perfectly, sounding more beyond tune than out of it. Lines like “No trombone or glockenspiel / Could ever feel / The way I feel tonight,” punctuated by a bout of distorted guitar, is as fantastic as it gets. Stuttering, mutating vocals samples shuttle restlessly through stereo, and by the end, the song has settled into an otherworldly groove. Such classic Morrissey-isms as “Fat bassoon… Nothing can take away my gloom” give way to treated laughter near the end. Finally, “My Hurling Days Are Gone” withdraws from the fireworks, staying adventurous with a backdrop of Indian instrumentation. Morrissey lets out characteristic lamentations about time. Come the chorus of “Mama / Mama and teddy bear,” one just has to shrug and give up. At least, it’s been a wild ride. 

“I Am Not a Dog on a Chain” comes with all the doom and gloom that you’d expect from a Morrissey album. If there were ever an artist who dove directly into self-parody on day one, it would be Moz. Somehow, the awkwardness that has characterized his music since the days of the Smiths seems to preclude any further embarrassment, no matter how outrageous. Morrissey’s trademark lugubrious excesses are everywhere to be found, and his distinctive voice is in top form, with a few moments that live up to his best work. The major surprise, and a wonderful one indeed, is how far out Morrissey travels in his musical stylings. For well over two decades, Moz has played it safe, with a musical palette that hardly ever lived up to the acerbic wit of the lyrics. In a move no one could have seen coming, Morrissey takes a bold step forward. The songs range from exhilarating to tired and comical, but the album might be the boldest musical advancement since the Smiths. 

I Am Not a Dog on a Chain” is available March 20 on Apple Music.