Could Morrissey ever not be embattled?
Bloody-minded if not from the womb, then certainly from secondary education onwards, the Morrissey persona that crystallised in the Smiths is one of enduringly indignant defence. Over the course of 10 solo albums he has continued to meet the world's spite with his own weary spleen. It could just be, however, that things have rarely been rosier for the singer, his recently cancelled US tour notwithstanding.
The validation of a bestselling autobiography, 2013's instant Penguin Classic, must have lit up the passive-aggressive fug of his existence just a little. It has certainly made his latest album, World Peace is None of Your Business, attractive to a new record label (the deal includes a follow-up, too). There is a renewed appetite for Morrissey's insights beyond the hardcore who loyally supported his last few records of foursquare indie-rock. In this, World Peace recalls the loved-up Roman holiday that was Ringleader of the Tormentors – there is a kind of joie de vivre to it, performing a jaunty paso doble with the usual songs about chronic disillusionment, vegetarianism and establishment-baiting. Kiss Me a Lot presents a loving clinch relatively unfreighted by anguish. "Kiss me all over and then/ When you've kissed me, kiss me all over again", swoons Morrissey as Spanish guitars frottage, castanets clack and trumpets blare. (The line "I don't care when or where" can't help but recall "Take me anywhere, I don't care, I don't care" from the Smiths' 1986 track There Is a Light That Never Goes Out). I'm Not a Man could so easily have been a sulk. Instead, it's a tender and funny take on masculinity ("Beefaroni/ Oh, but lonely") and Morrissey's own achilles heels; it also seems to suggest that T-bone steaks give you prostate cancer.
Then there's the music itself, on a giddy upswing. Multi-instrumentalist Gustavo Manzur is the new broom here, sweeping everyone – guitarists Boz Boorer and Jesse Tobias included – up in his good works; producer Joe Chiccarelli (U2, Beck) is a Morrissey first-timer too. It's a novelty for anyone involved with Morrissey 2.0 to own a set of hips, but these men do. Earth is the Loneliest Planet of All is a song that would live up to the bathos of its title if not for the fast shimmy underpinning it, as unlikely as it is effective. Hispanic influences have long been the preferred default for Morrissey when he's looking for drama or romance. These can get silly. The Bullfighter Dies strings together an absurd Iberian itinerary – "ill in Seville", "gaga in Malaga" – while ham-fistedly rooting for the bull. But you sense that Manzur and Chiccarelli are bringing more to this enterprise than another set of castanets. The detail is so much better than usual – passages of analogue oscillations, crunchy guitars, thoughtful intros and outros, everything lining up behind Morrissey's authoritative vocals.
Much has been said already about World Peace's political content, not least Morrissey's disdain for the democratic process, which chimes with that of Moz-fan-in-chief Russell Brand, our own Beppe Grillo-in-waiting. What's refreshing here are the instances of straight-up compassionate perspective, unbundled from the belligerence with which Morrissey's better instincts are usually expressed. Exam pressure isn't the sort of thing you would expect the adult Morrissey to write a song about, but the easy-going Staircase at the University lays out the distress of a student – female, at that – of whom too much is demanded.
Best of all, Istanbul tells the tale of a widower who loses his son to the prostitutes and gangsters of that city's backstreets. This is proper writing, not grandstanding or diarising, and it's a longed-for treat.
There are points where you sorely wish Morrissey had a few more apercus to impart. He notices that the rhythm of life goes round, that bad songs can get stuck in your head (Oboe Concerto, the otherwise moving final track). Women, meanwhile, can be lazy, gold-digging heifers who entrap fools into marriage (Kick the Bride Down the Aisle). But for every step back, Morrissey's paso doble takes two steps forwards. His years of refusal seem to be turning into years of renewal.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010