Monday, August 25, 2014

Morrissey, Tom Petty, and the 25-year slump

I haven’t listened—willingly and repeatedly—to a new album by Morrissey or Tom Petty since I was in high school. That was 25 years ago, folks. Did I miss anything?

Morrissey – World Peace is None of Your Business (Harvest/EMI)

You’d be forgiven for thinking Morrissey is an over-the-hill, pompous British rock star best left to the ’80s—the decade in which, arguably, was the last time he made a good record. The Smiths broke up. Morrissey’s solo career proved largely to be of diminishing returns. Now he’s good for little more than the occasional, inflammatory quote about animal rights.

Well, you and I are both wrong. World Peace is None of Your Business is a dramatic tour-de-force that finds Morrissey with a more commanding voice than in his heyday, leading a band that provide his overwrought lyrics with all the requisite drama they deserve. Producer Joe Chiccarelli gives everything a massive sonic weight to it, without merely turning up the guitar amps. Morrissey sounds like he spent as much, if not more, time on his melodies than his infamously (inane and) provocative lyrics.

It’s tempting, in a Morrissey review, to just provide a litany of lyrical zingers. There’s never shortage to choose from. (My favourite absurdity here: “Neal Cassady drops dead / and Allen Ginsberg’s tears shampoo his beard.”) There was a time when we laughed with Morrissey’s lyrics and Wildean wit; nowadays, we mostly laugh at him.

Yes, he’s ridiculous. When was he not? For every comical couplet (or questionable one, of which there are more than a few, starting with the title track), he also has retains his powerful ability to champion the outcasts, the suicidal, the bullied, the gender outlaws: “Humans are not really humane / and Earth is the loneliest planet of all.” Of course it is. His misanthropy (and arguably misogyny) gets the better of him on the vile “Kick the Bride Down the Aisle,” but surely the last 30 years have prepared us for that.

The man who put out some of his best songs with the Smiths on B-sides is up to similar tomfoolery here: this is available as a 12-song album with six bonus tracks on the deluxe edition, and at least half of the bonus tracks are better than most of the regular album—including the bombastic power of “Scandinavia,” the one track here that can instantly convince you Morrissey is on top of his game. (Aug. 7)

Download: “Scandinavia,” “The Earth is the Loneliest Planet of All,” “I’m Not a Man”

Tom Petty – Hypnotic Eye (Warner)

Tom Petty wrote enough classic songs in the first 20 years of his career, that you can forgive him for coasting these last 20—maybe even 25—years. Can you name a single Petty song after 1994’s Wildflowers? We’ve come to expect very little from Petty except a tour every couple of years. And yet here he comes out swinging with 11 tracks that make up for a lot of lost time. He told CBC Radio’s Q that “the snarl had come back”—this is not the sound of an old stoner who’s into transcendental meditation, but that of an angry guy with something to prove. Who knows what led Petty to this place: maybe, as he sings, “I feel like a forgotten man.”

No matter, because his band of Heartbreakers—including guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, who have been with him since high school—match him with vigour and spirited performances. For a legend who gets a standing ovation just for showing up these days, Tom Petty finally found some fire in his belly. A few more albums like this and he could coast for another 20 years.

“If I’m not making good records,” he told Q, “there’s no reason to buy another Tom Petty record. You’ve got quite a few already. But if I can make one that you want to get, then I’ve done my job.” Job well done, Mr. Petty. (Aug. 14)

Download: “American Dream Plan B,” “Red River,” “Fault Lines”

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