For the dwindling band of people still on Team Morrissey now that he’s turned into the Indie Farage, it would be helpful if he could supply them with some decent musical ammunition to defend him with – a late-career creative rebirth that at least gives haters pause for thought. I Am Not A Dog On A Chain is not it. The faithful will never desert him, of course, but the “separate the art from the artist” brigade can now be demobbed. With such patchy material as this, whether his political pronouncements condemn him or not is a moot point.
What is he even playing at? The cheesiness of last year’s covers album was forgivable on a side-project; it didn’t need to extend to an album proper. Yet here it is. Love Is On Its Way Out could be something Cyprus rejected as their 1992 Eurovision entry. Knockabout World is his alternate reality debut single where he hooked up with Stock, Aitken and Waterman after the Smiths split instead of doing Suedehead. The keyboard on the middle eight is so cheap, you wonder if they forgot to rework the demo.
Boz Boorer and band were supplying him with backing music that felt behind the times as far back as You Are The Quarry. The thrill of his comeback meant it went overlooked then, but it’s hard to hide now. This delivers a double dose of retro, like Englebert Humperdinck fronting the Pet Shop Boys. None of it’s terrible, it’s just stylistically odd, and surely not the greatest use of his talents now he’s reaching maturer years.
Once I Saw The River Clean is a vignette of young Moz, set to Midge Ure-era Ultravox electro, and notable mostly for the picture it conjures in the mind’s eye of the artist as a young man: “I walked with my grandmother down a windblown Chester road / With her 52 new pence for her 20 Number 10s and my 45 pence to demand Metal Guru.” A very English scene to marry to Europop.
Living up to its title, the opening motif of What Kind Of People Live In These Houses? could work as the theme of a daytime property show, even if some of the subject matter is for after the watershed. Picture Lloyd Grossman on Through The Keyhole: “What carpet-chewer lights up this sewer? And which rough trade strangers flail around these chambers?”
The good bits are often good for reasons that are nothing to do with Morrissey. Venerable soul star Thelma Houston going hammer and tongs versus the Hammond organ and sax on Bobby, Don’t You Think They Know is phenomenal. Moz’s bits are an unwanted distraction.
Then there are the curios. The Secret of Music is Morrissey trying to sex up a Joy Division dirge and is the weirdest thing here. The title track is a welcome return to the jaunty knees-up of tracks like Certain People I Know or Frankly, Mr Shankly and is the catchiest.
All the old themes return in the lyrics, whether it be depression – “If you’re gonna kill yourself, then for God’s sake, just kill yourself” (Jim Jim Falls) – or loneliness – “Why can’t you give me some physical love?” (Darling, I Hug A Pillow) – but you can’t help thinking he would have once expressed them with more flair. For every couplet with a pleasing turn of phrase – “maybe I’ll be skinned alive by Canada Goose because of my views” – there’s a stinker – “I do not read newspapers / They are troublemakers” and all that self-pitying now needs to be taken straight rather than with a pinch of archness.
In some quarters, I Am Not A Dog On A Chain will be acclaimed as Morrissey forging ahead with a new style, and who knows? When it comes to a full career retrospective, maybe this will seem a quirky addition to the catalogue. Right now it feels like a wrong move; a deviation into Bontempi keyboard crooning was not what the doctor ordered. He isn’t going to grow old gracefully, when in fact that may be the one thing that could yet save his reputation.