Now that the Chicago Cubs have won the World Series, the world’s most beleaguered fan base belongs to Steven Patrick Morrissey. Though the former Smiths singer has made his share of excellent solo albums, he’s also made his share of blustering, tone-deaf political proclamations. Factor in his tendency to cancel concerts for the flimsiest of reasons, and one understands why the Moz has become so increasingly difficult to love. “Low in High School” might be the most explicitly topical album Morrissey’s ever made, and while that isn’t exactly welcome news for most listeners, his evident passion for the subject matter has him sounding more inspired than he has in quite a while.
Morrissey comes out swinging on the first half with a string of immediate, purposeful songs in the modern rock style that’s been his trademark since the 2000s. Boston native Joe Chiccarelli produces for the second album in a row, but the spy-movie swagger of “My Love, I’d Do Anything for You” and the melodic yet martial “I Wish You Lonely” are punchier than anything on 2014’s “World Peace Is None of Your Business.” The high point is lead single “Spent the Day in Bed,” a call to “stop watching the news” and “be good to yourself for once” anthemic enough to make a simple act of self-care sound like spiritual triumph.
Things start going off the rails with “I Bury the Living,” on which Morrissey spends over seven aimless minutes singing from the perspective of a soldier who is dismissed as both bloodthirsty and responsible for the war he fights in. It’s needlessly nasty and indicative of the limitations of Moz’s social commentary; elsewhere, he decries the “mainstream media” and “society” like a natural-born conspiracy theorist, then gifts us with the revolutionary theories that wars are fought for oil, the police can be quite violent sometimes, and religion just might have something to do with Israel’s woes. Israel is actually one of the album’s central themes, with several songs featuring Middle Eastern-influenced arrangements and titles like “The Girl From Tel Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel” and, well, “Israel.” Admirable as his more empathetic verses may be, his dismissal of the nation’s critics as merely “jealous” is a regrettable oversimplification, revealing that perhaps Morrissey would be better off avoiding complex geopolitical issues.
Amid the joyless sloganeering, relief comes in “All the Young People Must Fall in Love.” Despite Morrissey’s highly questionable claim that “presidents come, presidents go/ And no one remembers their name two weeks after,” there’s no resisting the casual charm of the clap-and-stomp rhythm and campfire-singalong melody. It’s enough to make you wish that the old crank would stop trying so hard to say something important and let himself be this relaxed for the length of a whole album (a fun Morrissey album — can you imagine?). Until then, we have “Low in High School,” which is sometimes brilliant, sometimes infuriating, and 100 percent Morrissey.
Terence Cawley can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @terence_cawley