To reject the notion of death of the author is a perfectly valid critical opinion. In music more than any other artform, having the creator’s persona as an intrinsic factor within the work is important to how it’s received, and stripping that away can be seen to some as starving particular pieces of music of an inherent artistic catharsis, or conversely, letting slide the reprehensible behaviour that may have come to influence the art in some way. In the case of Morrissey though, it’s hard to think of an artist in the history of popular music who’s played as fast and loose with the boundaries of death of the author as he has. He hasn’t physically done anything in the same way as abusers or murderers for whom cutting them off can feel like shedding excess baggage, but the utter immolation of his own reputation through a series of growingly odious opinions and viewpoints on the world has turned him into a rather detestable character all the same. Comparing his own work with The Smiths to David Bowie’s early novelty single The Laughing Gnome has somehow become the most innocuous of his horrendous thoughts, now coming to include his endorsement of far-right political parties and a belief that the objective shitshow of Brexit is ‘magnificent’. And if these weren’t the sort of topics that so frequently fed into Morrissey’s music, it could be possible to look past them when talking specifically about that creative output, but when his latest album is called I Am Not A Dog On A Chain, released so soon after the UK has left the European Union and adorned with an image of his smug gob on the artwork, the implications are immediately not good from the very beginning.
What’s more, where there’s at least a shred of deeper auteurism or trolling with similarly divisive practices from an artist like Kanye West, Morrissey’s efforts are played with such a deliberate straightness that only exacerbates how rancid this really is, compounded by an increasingly formless musical direction that might be the most innocuous signifier of the titular chain being shed, but it’s no more pleasant to listen to. Instead, I Am Not A Dog On A Chain just feels ugly and toxic in the worst imaginable ways, delivered by an egotist who’s completely lost control of said ego and feels comfortable in making everyone else privy to how meteorically his own stock has fallen.
But of course, that’s not the way that Morrissey views it; in his eyes, he’s the one who’s right and believes he should lord that over everyone else, to the point where his levels of dismissiveness and over-inflated pomposity permeate so deeply and noticeably across the board. The tone is set by the title track, where Morrissey goes on a wanking stroll to assert how much better than the plebeian common folk he is, because he can think for himself and isn’t brainwashed by the media in the same way that loutish underclasses are, and the stench of entitlement is positively disgusting with every word that comes from his mouth. It’s also worth considering the just a couple of songs earlier is Love Is On The Way Out bemoaning the lack of harmony in the world, but the whiplash transition between that and a song like What Kind Of People Live In These Houses?, an absolutely vile song making light of those stricken by poverty and throwing them all under the same umbrella of uneducated scroungers, doesn’t even pretend to make sense. Following that with Knockabout World, an ode to Morrissey’s fellow right-wingers who he feels have been mistreated by the mean old public, not only does the sentiment of somehow having blatant racism and classism represented unfairly hit with the most colossal of thuds, but it highlights just how insecure Morrissey actually is. As much as he wants to put on the face of being in the right all the time, it’s clear that he can’t take it when it’s not going his way; he’s goading someone to kill themselves on the opening track Jim Jim Falls for starters, and with the notion that isolating himself with his own ilk is the best way to move forward, the thin skin really begins to show when he’s criticised, or when his own privilege is tested. It’s what gives the portrayal of people struggling with addiction on Bobby, Don’t You Think They Know? or gender identity on The Truth About Ruth such an obvious undertone of scorn; in the more progressive world he’s found himself in, Morrissey can’t stand not being the centre of attention, so his only option is to stick out his bottom lip and parade around like a big man in a way that feels so transparent.
And yes, that is all relevant to how this album is viewed; separating the artist’s views from their art is useless when those views are such an integral factor within that art, but even if one was to do that on I Am Not A Dog On A Chain, you’d still be left with an album that has next to no redeeming qualities. This might have been proclaimed as Morrissey’s most experimental and groundbreaking album to date, but when that conclusion is drawn from a fusion of weightless Britpop and slapdash electronic elements that could’ve been lifted from anywhere between 1990 and 2005, there’s not a lot on the whole that coalesces into much in the way of quality. Some praise does need to be given for production that can have a nice amount of opulence to it with the sweeping, dreamlike qualities of Knockabout World and Darling, I Hug A Pillow, and when efforts are at their most focused, there’s a pretty great bass groove and selection of horn accents to Bobby, Don’t You Think They Know? that course behind Thelma Houston’s oversized backing vocals with some really excellent force. Beyond that though, there’s the typical Morrissey fare like the dull-as-sand jangle of What Kind Of People Live In These Houses?, a stab at chintzy indie-pop that presumably tries to be endearing to flies off into the stratosphere on the title track, and some madcap experiments with electronic music like the excruciating eight minutes of The Secret Of Music, in which it becomes clear that Morrissey doesn’t know a single thing about structuring songs like this, or finding a workable foundation to build them on. And on top of all of that, there’s Morrissey himself, with his foppish, braying howl that can still cut through glass and, while has admirably avoided the ravages of age up to this point which will absolutely destroy it when that day comes, just doesn’t have a quality that’s all that magnetic. Listening to Morrissey sing really doesn’t stir up any sort of emotion beyond boredom, such is the tonelessness that so often feels like his default setting and, as always, is run straight into the ground.
Still, as far as achievements go, combining tonelessness with pure tone-deafness is a new one, but I Am Not A Dog On A Chain seems to revel in its chance to do so. As forgettable as Morrissey albums tend to be, this feels like one to actively avoid, especially when the rampant condescension and talking down to everyone but his own narrow-minded strata of society begs the question of who Morrissey is really trying to appeal to. There’s no sense of populism, empathy or approachability to be found, instead banking on blind provocation to forge a talking point that really isn’t deserved. And yes, by going on to this extent is giving Morrissey the exact attention he wants and doesn’t deserve, but it’s also worth remembering that this is still an artist with a storied back catalogue in both The Smiths and as a solo artist, and to see him look to destroy all of that with as much efficiency as possible represents an impressively concise case study in how off-the-rails a career can go when the ego piloting it isn’t being fed to the extent that it wants to be. Well, hopefully this is a suitable meal for Morrissey, especially if it brings him one step closer to never releasing any more music ever again.
For fans of: Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘I Am Not A Dog On A Chain’ by Morrissey is released on 20th March on BMG Rights Management.