When fans and critics hear Morrissey’s Years of Refusal, they’re going to do so with the expectation that, whatever its merits, the album will only be the artist’s “best since” Vauxhall and I or Your Arsenal. It’s sort of a dismissive stance, and it has less to do with the relative quality of those now-revered albums as it does with an assumption that even well-executed comebacks don’t tend to produce classics. And sure, Morrissey will never be as exciting as he was in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but with 2004’s You Are the Quarry, 2005’s better-than-average live album Live at Earls Court, 2006’s Ringleader of the Tormentors, and now Years of Refusal, Morrissey has put out four solid releases in five years. Song for song, he has never been this consistently good, except maybe in the best days of the Smiths.
The high quality of Morrissey’s recent output, in comparison to even his celebrated early-‘90s releases, ultimately comes down to the attentive composition and a willingness to employ a wider array of instrumental contexts than for Morrissey’s singing. For all their strengths, Vauxhall and Arsenal could slip into sameness. The focus was never supposed to be on the players behind the man on those records, but his band’s work isn’t simply reduced to sonic backdrops here. “When Last I Spoke to Carol” rides a galloping mariachi stomp, while “Mama Lay Softly On the Riverbed” and “You Were Good in Your Time” both use synths and strings, respectively, to creepy atmospheric effect. One of Morrissey’s central dilemma’s has always been how to write interesting songs about being bored and disaffected, and he now seems increasingly willing to make composition part of that equation.
Those welcome developments aside, the best tracks on Years of Refusal are distinguished by what has always made for standout Morrissey songs: a powerful vocal performance and mordantly quotable lyrics. On the first track “Someone Is Squeezing My Skull,” Morrissey conveys new-millennium malaise and catalogues brand-name anti-depressants, but does so through a surging, energetic vocal performance that’s playfully jumpy in both scale and tempo. It’s an anti-anthem as good as any he’s ever recorded, in part because his singing comes through with a richness and vitality that even the better songs on Quarry and Tormentors lacked. Certainly, his range has diminished since his youth, but he sounds truly revitalized here, and he confidently delivers a gorgeous chorus on the single “Throwing My Arms Around Paris” that recalls vintage Smiths singles like “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side.”
As the album proceeds, Morrissey simply sounds like a superior version of the singer he’s always been. He doesn’t take many chances, which is ultimately the album’s biggest flaw. There are almost no bad songs on the album, but only a handful of truly memorable ones. When he does push himself as a songwriter, as on the disarmingly maudlin “It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore,” the results are stunning. He berates the listener during the song’s sinister climax: “Did you really think we meant all those syrupy sentimental things that we said?” That the song manages to be both petty and emotionally riveting is a testament to Morrissey’s expressiveness. Songs like that make it clear that the reincarnated Morrissey has lost none of his articulate bitterness. Older, wiser, and as caustic as he’s ever been, he is in an enviable position as a performer: A decade and a half since he was Top of the Pops, his latest songs rival any of his past material in workmanlike consistency and creativity.