Don’t read this review expecting Morrissey punditry.
I’m probably one of the few aging hipsters who never listened to the Smiths during his formative years, so I’m pretty new to canon of Steven Patrick M.
That said, I actually like Ringleader of the Tormentors.
Even without knowing Morrissey’s previous work — I’ve only ever listened to The Queen Is Dead, and that was just five months ago — it’s pretty clear a forcefulness and clarity drives the album.
"I Will See You in Far Off Places" opens Ringleader with a bang, the rough guitars never overpowering the song but certainly establishing a sturdy foundation for everything after. The Middle Eastern feel of the song takes on ominous tone, not just because it’s directed (supposedly) at Osama bin Laden.
"Dear God, Please Help Me" immediately crashes the momentum of the opener, but Morrissey’s frank lyrics — and his sensual delivery — makes it stand out.
From then on, Ringleader of the Tormentors delivers one solid performance after another.
Producer Tony Visconti coaxes a hard sound from Morrissey’s backing band, making the singer sound — for lack of a better term — butch. He also puts Morrissey squarely in front of the mix, giving him an almost live presence.
Morrissey himself sings at top of his game. He sounds biting when delivering the cautionary tale of "The Youngest Was the Most Loved". He sounds alternately bitter and consoled when confessing "To Me Your Are a Work of Art". He even sounds optimistic (?!) on "In the Future When All’s Well".
I’m only familiar with the content of Morrissey’s lyrics by reputation. (My only gauge being the aforementioned The Queen Is Dead.) His reknown as a tortured soul had some writers sniping that the title of the album should be Ringleader of the Tormented.
But even in that regard, Morrissey shakes up expectations but not completely.
"At Last I Am Born" is an open refutation of that reputation, but it’s not "Amazing Grace" — he once was lost, but now he doesn’t care. And that’s a healthier attitude in my book.
"To Me You Are a Work of Art" tempers both pessimism and optimism without canceling either out. The world may make Morrissey puke, but that one person in his life makes it all better. "To me you are a work of art," he sings, "and I’ve give you my heart. That’s if I had one." Aw.
There’s still enough of the Morrissey of yore to go around.
In "On the Streets I Ran", he recounts a Faustian bargain to turn "sickness into unpopular song", begging the streets on which he ran to take anyone — the people of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for one — but him. What a funny guy.
Ringleader of the Tormentors isn’t an album to convince Morrissey’s detractors to change their tune. (Chances are, if you don’t like Morrissey, you probably won’t start anyway.) But for the rest of the world without an opinion, the album is sharp and strong and worth a listen.