Morrissey has always been a proud curmudgeon, so perhaps it was inevitable that his personal conservatism would one day curdle into reactionary politics. Once a reliable critic of Margaret Thatcher, the former Smiths frontman was recently derided as a xenophobe in part for his support of Brexit. In typical Morrissey fashion, he apologizes for nothing on Low in High School, and if anything he doubles down on his stodginess.
That may seem like an odd thing to say about an album that includes an epic anti-war rant (“I Bury the Living”), as well as a song that wonders “Who Will Protect Us from the Police?” Then again, Morrissey doesn’t make it even one minute into the album before he scolds the “mainstream media” and pleads with us not to believe the press, a trope he returns to throughout. The cumulative impact isn’t of a man who’s politically principled so much as just ornery—a defiant crank who pores over headlines, absorbs conspiracy theories, and lashes out because he simply needs to stir the pot.
Morrissey’s politics might be getting meaner, but his wit hasn’t totally abandoned him. Low in High School’s finer moments are the ones where the singer shuts the outside world out, something he’s very intentional about on songs like “In Your Lap,” where he hides himself in a lover’s embrace, and the coy “Spent the Day in Bed,” where his defensiveness stays on the right side of good humor: “All my dreams are perfectly legal.”
If Morrissey seeks solace between the sheets, he also finds it in music—and results can be invigorating. It’s not just that he sounds gleefully engaged with his mean-old-man shtick; it’s when he allows his arrangements to become slyly adventurous that the album blooms. “Spent the Day in Bed” is playful and campy while “The Girl from Tel-Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel” is a swaying show tune; both are welcome deviations from Morrissey’s typical guitar rock, and even when he reverts to that formula he at least makes it sound fresh, as on the crunching, horn-spiked opener, “My Love, I’d Do Anything for You.”
Too often, though, Morrissey sticks with sturdy, stomping rock, its workmanlike construction bogged down by turgid lyrics. For a man once feted for his droll and astute analysis of British politics, it’s telling that most of these songs land like bludgeons; when he warns that the news tries to make us feel fearful and small, he just sounds like a reactionary. Elsewhere he warns that “society is hell” and takes vague potshots at jet-setting music moguls. The only song that’s convincing for its rage, as opposed to its petulance, is “I Bury the Living,” a seven-and-a-half-minute screed about holy war. There’s nothing especially quotable about it, but its sheer ballast makes an impression.
On Low in High School, it’s hard not to hear Morrissey as an old dog who’s watching the world pass him by. He’s increasingly content to preach to the converted, limiting his audience to those who can put up with his crotchety ways—a stubborn streak that’s a little less charming with every passing year.