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Morrissey's diatribes in 'World Peace' poke, prod, provoke

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Morrissey uses theatricality to power his latest lashings on 'World Peace Is None of Your Business'

What, you thought he'd gotten everything out of his system?

Sure, Morrissey splashed enough bile across the pages of last year's bestselling "Autobiography" — excoriating various business partners as well as his former bandmates in the Smiths — that it might've seemed the famously combative British pop star would need never again vent his well-exercised spleen.

But if there's one thing Morrissey has shown us over his three-decade career, it's that excess is a starting place, not an end point. Here he comes, then, with "World Peace Is None of Your Business," his first studio album in five years and perhaps the most vituperative he's ever made, with no shortage of scorn for politicians, meat-eaters, bullfighters and, in one remarkably mean-spirited instance, a woman with the gall to get married.

"I know so much more than I'm willing to say," he sings at one point. Can you imagine if that were true?

In a typically perverse twist, Morrissey, 55, sets these bitter diatribes against lush, expansive arrangements that mark a pronounced shift from the crunching guitar rock of his last few records. Sonically, "World Peace" is his gentlest since the dreamy "Vauxhall and I" in 1994.

In "Earth Is the Loneliest Planet" he floats his throaty croon over fluttering, flamenco-style acoustic guitar, while "I'm Not a Man" shimmers with twinkly keyboards from Gustavo Manzur, a relatively recent addition to Morrissey's band, which is still led as it has been since the early '90s by guitarist Boz Boorer. "Oboe Concerto" and "Smiler With Knife" are hushed mid-tempo numbers. And "Kiss Me a Lot" has hand claps and a bright trumpet line.

But as on "Vauxhall and I" — where chiming arpeggios made him sound only creepier in the stalker-ish "The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get" — Morrissey isn't using the beauty of the music to soften the impact of his words. Rather, he appears to have cleared away some of the clutter so that we can better hear what he has to say.

Which, basically, as always, is this: People will disappoint you in every imaginable way, including (and maybe especially) with their grinding, witless dedication to that pursuit.

Early reaction to the new album has suggested that Morrissey's signature misanthropy somehow turns a corner on "World Peace" — that he's finally gone too far with songs like "Kick the Bride Down the Aisle," about a woman who "just wants a slave to break his back in pursuit of a living wage," and "The Bullfighter Dies," an animal-cruelty plaint in which "nobody cries because we all want the bull to survive."

There's also the opening title track, a bit of PRISM-era paranoia regarding governmental overreach that climaxes with Morrissey's announcing, "Each time you vote, you support the process." But this feels more like trolling — the kind of willful provocation commonly practiced online — than it does a considered political position. The same goes for "I'm Not a Man," where his protest against the strictures of masculinity contains this dubious medical advice: "Wolf down T-bone steak / Wolf down cancer of the prostate."

Trolls, of course, are known as trolls for a reason — because we hope not to encounter them anywhere but under a bridge. Yet since when was likability a measure of the value of Morrissey's music?

The criticism of "World Peace" implies that the singer was once more of an easygoing character. But if it seems that way it's only because we've bent toward the aggressive misery of his early work, which no longer feels threatening (and therefore offers the illusion of relatability) because it's been so widely emulated.

In reality, his strategy was in place from the beginning: to embody the qualities of a villain — self-pity, megalomania, a flair for exaggeration — while presenting himself as a hero. That's what endeared him to countless misfits made to feel the opposite (like heroes unfairly painted as villains) by their parents, their headmasters or indeed the whole of rotten society.

And it's the same calculated theatricality that powers his latest lashings on "World Peace Is None of Your Business." Does Morrissey the man really believe some of the ghastly things that Morrissey the singer says here? That seems far less important than the vivid precision with which he puts his ideas across in songs as foul-tempered as "I'm Not a Man" and as empathetic as "Staircase at the University," a portrait of a young woman driven to suicide by her father's demands for good grades.

A Morrissey apologist might single out the latter as demonstration that he hasn't curdled completely. To my ears it just proves he still loves playing a good part.

mikael.wood@latimes.com

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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Morrissey

"World Peace Is None of Your Business"

(Harvest/Capitol)

3 stars

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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