MORRISSEY I Am Not a Dog on a Chain gets 5/10

I Am Not a Dog on a Chain


If you are reading this you probably already know the deal here. Morrissey is one of the great iconic figures of British post-punk/indie, the former lead singer of The Smiths who first appeared in the 1980s as a kind of reincarnated Oscar Wilde, wearing his hearing aid and waving gladioli around by a disused Manchester railway line. While back then the songs spoke to the frustrated aesthetes and unloved outsiders of the yuppie era, Morrissey has well and truly fallen far out of favour since.

Today he is mostly known for constantly grasping for media attention with a string of offensive and usually racially-tinged statements. For many the final straw came last year when he announced his support for a far right anti-immigration party in the UK. Of course he isn’t the first musician to offend or outrage people, but it feels much worse coming from someone with his background. He knows exactly what he is doing, and appears to enjoy it.

The paradox here is that I Am Not a Dog on a Chain is easily the best thing musically that Morrissey has done in at least a decade. True, it’s not saying much, but veteran American producer Joe Chicarelli has actually managed to coax him away from his usual monochrome sound towards something lusher and far more interesting. Quite a few songs here manage to seriously take off. There are frantic organ solos, wailing backing singers, brass instruments, even scattered electronic beats and various atmospheric effects – all this from the man who once famously called for all synthesisers to be burned in a giant bonfire.

The problem here is that the lyrics are shot through with a vicious, embittered nastiness which weighs each song down. Opening song Jim Jim Falls encourages a suicidal person to “just kill yourself and just get on with it.”  It is meant to be funny, but it falls totally flat. Another song mocks a gay man afraid to come out of the closet while The Truth about Ruth appears to taunt a transgender person about their past. All this from a guy who spent decades declaring himself to be “celibate” while riddling his work with subtle coded messages about his sexuality to the gay community. “Toughen up and sort yourself out” – this is the message coming from Morrissey in 2020, former champion of the dispossessed and disenfranchised.

A couple of months back Nick Cave made a pretty eloquent case that where possible we should always try to separate the art from the artist, but the problem when it comes to “pop music” is that the two are pretty much enmeshed. The persona of the artist is very much part of the deal. The music can never totally stand alone. The tragedy here is that Dog on a Chain could almost be a worthy comeback, but it’s just too riddled with the flaws of its creator.  Time and time again here a decent melody is ruined when you suddenly figure out what he is actually singing about.

“Now I know how Joan of Arc felt” sang Morrissey in 1986, but that was obviously funny and self-mocking. Now he really means it. It is true that lots of great artists have a wilderness period, but Morrissey’s 2020 public persona is just too unpleasant to overlook. Terrible people can make great art, sure, but this is usually when the art somehow transcends or redeems whatever it is that makes them terrible, rather than just amplifies it. When what you actually have to say is so ugly, what is the point? What a waste of wit and talent and time. Even Oscar Wilde lying silently in his grave would probably agree with that.


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