To paraphrase Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, if we don’t know Morrissey by now, we will never, ever, ever know Morrissey. Last year, the famously self-absorbed former Smiths frontman released the memoir “Autobiography,” his 457-page attempt to let fans into the weird little world he calls home. Like his best songs, the book raises way more questions than it answers, and its very existence may help explain “World Peace Is None of Your Business,” Moz’s tenth studio album and first in five years.
If “World Peace” isn’t Morrissey’s least autobiographical LP, it’s certainly one of his most scattershot. Recorded in France with producer Joe Chiccarelli, the disc is filled with broad political statements and odd character sketches. Musically, Moz lets his sidemen go wild with electronic beats, accordions, Spanish and Middle Eastern flourishes, and synths galore. It’s essential listening not so much for its quality—uneven, if generally high—but for the strange place it occupies in Morrissey’s discography. Not since 1991’s “Kill Uncle” has he given us anything quite so puzzling.
The only real introspection seems to come via “I Am Not a Man” and closer “Oboe Concerto,” and the portrait Moz paints is that of an aging rock icon unsure of his place in the universe. If he’s losing touch, he’s singing better than ever, and he’s still capable of delivering the occasional stunner. Since he’s inked a two-record deal with Capitol’s Harvest imprint, “World Peace” could be the preface to yet another late-career triumph.
But fans shouldn’t look that far ahead. Given the pace at which Morrissey does most things these days, the next episode could be many years away. That leaves plenty of time to contemplate “World Peace,” a possible grower we’ve given a track-by-track dissection below.
1. “World Peace Is None of Your Business”: “Bahrain” rhymes with “Ukraine,” and they both rhyme with “pain” on this musically sweet, lyrically blunt slab of political satire. Moz has zero faith in governments, and his advice on this sing-songy ballad is to shut up and keep your head down, lest you be tazed. Obviously, he’s never been one to muzzle himself, but at least one part of this song rings sincere. “Each time you vote,” the lifelong non-joiner tells us, “you support the process.”
2. “Neal Cassady Drops Dead”: Singing over a harsh programmed beat and some of the nastiest guitar chords in his catalog, Morrissey starts by presenting us with the image of Allen Ginsberg weeping over the corpse of his fellow Beat writer and sometime lover Neal Cassady. Nine Inch Moz then goes off on a free-associative rap about diseased children before asking, “Victim, or life’s adventurer?” For the answer, at least as far as Morrissey’s career is concerned, see his 1997 tune “I Can Have Both.”
3. “I’m Not a Man”: Like the title track, “I’m Not a Man” is a twinkling ballad that leaves no room for misinterpretation. Because he’s neither a carnivore nor a soldier, a workaholic nor a womanizer, Morrissey feels out of step with the modern man. Clumsy, didactic, and at least five minutes too long, this misstep has a few things going for it—namely Moz’s T-bone-thick crooning, those cool space-age synths, and the frightening shrieks at the end.
4. “Istanbul”: Built on foreboding Middle Eastern-sounding keyboards, this Turkish family drama is the latest in a string of great songs Morrissey has written about tough guys whose lives couldn’t be less like his own. (See also: “Boxers,” “First of the Gang to Die.”) It’s pure fiction—and compelling fiction at that—though it’s kind of fun to picture Morrissey as the protagonist, creeping through crowded marketplaces in search of his “brown-eyed son.”
5. “Earth Is the Loneliest Planet of All”: For those who found the leadoff track too subtle, this Latin-style groover makes it quite plain where Morrissey stands on the human race. “Earth is the cruelest place you will never understand,” he sings, summing up his misanthropic worldview with one of the most tossed-off lines he’s ever penned. Either he’s phoning it in, or his contempt for mankind is such that he can no longer be bothered to write words worthy of becoming neck tattoos.
6. “Staircase at the University”: Even though the synths overpower the guitars, this has this has the taut, rocking feel of Moz’s finest mid-‘90s singles. It’s also the funniest song on the album—provided you’re the type of person who can laugh at a super stressed college girl throwing herself down a flight of stairs. Supposedly sympathetic but ultimately quite mean, this one is up there with similarly mocking Moz classics “November Spawned a Monster” and “Mute Witness.” The Spanish guitar fanfare near the end is a lovely punch line.
7. “The Bullfighter Dies”: Anyone who’s read “Autobiography” knows Morrissey loves alliteration and internal rhyme, and on this animal-rights anthem, he has some fun with names of Spanish cities. “Gaga in Malaga / no mercy in Murcia / mental in Valencia,” he sings, smiling big and bright as some matador gets gored. The accordion gives the whole thing a cheery old-world feel that sharpens yet another blunt attack.
8. “Kiss Me a Lot”: A couple albums ago, on “Ringleader of the Tormentors,” Morrissey sang of having “explosive kegs between my legs.” Here, he dons a cape, puts a red rose between his teeth, and goes out in search of amore. It’s a dashing Spanish-tinged pop tune about stolen kisses in churchyards and secluded backyards, and if Moz is getting his loving on the sly—and read into that what you will—he’s at least having a good time.
9. “Smiler With a Knife”: Pairing the sound of a lullaby with the tortured lyrics of a deeply wounded lover, this mostly acoustic tune finds Morrissey begging some former paramour to “press the blade against my skin.” Lines like “slam-in, one shot gentle pain” evoke both sex and betrayal, suggesting our boy has been screwed in more ways than one.
10. “Kick the Bride Down the Aisle”: Maybe Morrissey is lucky his relationships keep ending badly. Here, he’s a cynical guest at a Spanish wedding, warning his fellow guests about the soul-sucking harpy the groom’s about to marry. “She just wants a slave / to break his back in pursuit of a living wage / so that she can laze and graze / for the rest of her days,” he sings, sounding even more misogynistic than he did on “Staircase at the University.” You know, if he’s not careful, people might think he’s got issues with women…
11. “Mountjoy”: For years, Morrissey has been telling us life is a prison. Here, he sings about an actual prison—the Dublin lock-up that once housed poet Brendan Behan and other members of the Irish Republican Army. Musically and lyrically underdeveloped, this acoustic tune centers on heavy concepts that deserve better lines than, “What those in power do to you / reminds us at a glance / how humans hate each others guts.” Still, Moz gets in one great barb about judges—“I was sent here by a three-foot half-wit in a wig”—and the heavy strings and cannon-blast drums heard in the final minutes arrive like welcome reinforcements.
12. “Oboe Concerto”: No one stays young forever. One day, you’re the young buck in the hot U.K. guitar band. Three decades later, you’re the old man in the tuxedo, raising a glass to all your dead friends. “Round, round, the rhythm of life goes round,” Morrissey sings, holding onto the merry-go-round handrails as the wind blows through his salt-and-pepper pompadour. Is this a farewell or the prelude to yet another brilliant encore? One hopes for the latter, but either way, this is a song even hardcore fans will appreciate but seldom come back to.