Low In High School (BMG)
I know you have been saying to yourself, if there is any musician whose views on Middle East matters I want to hear about it is Stephen Patrick Morrissey.
The man who brought us Bengali In Platforms (“Bengali in platforms, he only wants to embrace your culture …. break the news to him gently, shelve your plans, shelve your plans … life is hard enough when you belong here”) and The National Front Disco (whose lyrics could be described politely as ambiguous, even without the appropriation of “England for the English!”), before later declaring that while “I don’t have anything against people from other countries”, immigration had taken away a national identity (“The gates are flooded and anybody can have access to England and join in”).
The man who went from an ironic use of the British flag, among a more heartfelt clinging to deeply held British icons, to identifying with British nationalists, backing Nigel Farage (a “liberal educator [who] respects equal freedom for all people”) and one of his failed successors (Anne Marie Waters, whose failure to win the leadership of Farage’s UKIP group he put down to the claim that “the voting was rigged”), and who was celebrating Brexit (“the result was magnificent”), clearly is just the man for the complexities of a two-state solution and historic wrongs, Israeli peace movement vs settlers, Hezbollah vs Fatah vs Hamas, and war generally.
After all, if PJ Harvey can release an album of reportage from various conflicts around the world – from refugee camps to the redevelopments of low income housing in Washington – which followed an album examining Britain’s history of war, and be lauded for it, why shouldn’t Morrissey lift up his pen and address pressing issues of world significance?
If anyone could do it is he. Did Polly Jean manage to rhyme head of state with potentate as he does here? I don’t think so. Loser.
Consequently, it would please all to hear Morrissey’s view that the foot soldiers have had it far too easy from blame when it comes to wars.
“Give me an order, I’ll blow up your daughter,” he sings in I Bury The Living, accompanied by a swelling male chorus like the Red Army Choir on secondment, which is transformed into a shouting chant like a platoon on the run up the hill in the bootcamp part of any war movie when he sings “you can’t blame me I’m just an innocent solider/there would be no war if not for me, I’m just a sweet little soldier”
Few people – any? – have really understood that wave of revolts but a few short years ago which rocked several countries across North Africa and the Middle East in the way Mr Morrissey grasped it and can now personalise it.
“The Arab spring called to us all, the people win when the dictators fall/I heard a bang and an almighty crack, and I just want my face in your lap,” he sings in In Your Lap. “The security force is always the worst/ Government spies they’re spraying our eyes … and I’m dreaming of touching your arm.”
Elsewhere, we are introduced to “the girl from Tel Aviv who wouldn’t kneel, not for husband, dictator, tyrant or king”, among people living in “humble homes, with mottos on the walls”. Life’s a bit tricky around these parts, especially with neighbours where some of those soldiers mentioned earlier tramp across territory “just because the land weeps oil”.
But this living can be hard enough another song advises us, without oil, soldiers and foreigners – “I can’t answer for what armies do,” he reminds us over martial snare drums – and then in a planet that is “just one big asylum, an explosive prison cell”, where we “were born as guilty sinners, before [we] stood up right [we] fell/Put the fear of many gods in Israel”, it comes to all of us to “realise if you’re happy, Jesus sends you straight to hell, Israel/And should you dare enjoy your body, here tolls Hades’ bell”.
This song, which closes the album in a semi-funeral march, is called Israel. Which is not the same country by the way that, in Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up On Stage, he says “is making you sick”.
That particular country is the one where “everybody’s running for the exit” – which may or may not be echoed by something that sounds like Brexit in the background vocals - to the soundtrack of triumphant trumpet, rising strings, helicopters and shouting children.
No, Israel is the country where “the sky is dark for many others/they want it dark for you as well”. Which is, you would have to say, not nice at all.
So, what do we have as a takeaway from Low In High School? War bad. Armies – and police - badder. The media generally, very bad. Governments bad bad bad. Enemies of Israel bad bad baddest.
(Getting a bit of mouth-on action though, that’s very ok: as well as heads in laps, in Home Is A Question Mark we are offered “would you wrap your legs around my face just to greet me?”. Which is, by contrast with Israel, rather nice wouldn’t you say?)
If we step away from the lyrics for a bit and I tell you that musically at least, this album is better than 2014’s World Peace Is None Of Your Business, I would first have to acknowledge that this is a low bar. The lowest indeed of a career which sometimes seems to work on the limbo principle.
But while retaining the same band, and the same very long-time co-writer in Boz Boorer, Low In High School has more occasions for something like joy for the long-suffering casual fan/regular human in the world of Morrissey.
(By contrast, the diehards are about as reachable with reality as the Liberal Party’s stormtrooper wing, and as liable to throw themselves at critics in a sacrificial wave as the juden.)
If the opening My Love I’d Do Anything For You doesn’t quite fulfil its promise – and is let down by its next track neighbour, the glam-without-glitter I Wish You Lonely - it is a burst of Sweet-meets-The National growling that brings the energy early.
Energy is there incrementally, in the grandly climaxing Home Is A Question Mark, amusingly, in the unexpectedly ‘70s pop moves of Spent The Day In Bed, and brassily, in the otherwise clunky electro-rock of Who Will Protect Us From The Police.
The continuing interest in Latin feels is enjoyable, if still incongruous, in When You Open Your Legs and, especially, The Girl From Tel Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel. But if the verging on overwrought touches of Israel are held back just enough, unfortunately the same cannot be said of the histrionic Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up On Stage.
Though if you want over the top you can’t go past I Bury The Living, though I would suggest going past it most times you play the album.
Which brings us back to the central failing of Low In High School. So stentorian, so without subtlety or insight to balance the obviousness of the observations, are the lyrics that the thud of each line landing overwhelms whatever credit might be given the music.
The album is summed up by its cover: a boy at the gates of what might be Buckingham Palace, holding an axe in one hand and in the other a placard demanding “axe the monarchy. As with that image, Low In High School is a mix of affected youth, infected adulthood and the privilege afforded history over performance.