Dressed To Overkill: Long-awaited followup to career milestone sinks to middle
On paper there was every reason to believe that Ringleader of the Tormentors would be an epochal album. On the heels of the dazzling You Are the Quarry, Morrissey’s triumphant return to the stage and spotlight, he showed signs of a latter-day flowering. Taut and strutting, Quarry had ample doses of Moz’s clever-devil black humor, but on songs like “First of the Gang to Die,” they were delivered with such a sly and ebullient smirk that it no longer seemed like the emotionally defensive maneuver of a tortured melodramatist. Lurking through the songs and the surprisingly non-evasive interviews was a hint that perhaps the man so stereotypically associated with all things teenage-morose was growing ever more comfortable in his own shadow, myth and skin. Quarry introduced Morrissey’s fervent public to his new and endearing incarnation as an elder statesman, a one-man Rat Pack for the post-post-punk set.
And then there’s the matter of producer Tony Visconti. Apparently tapped in lieu of an overbooked Jeff Saltzman, the choice of this particular studio legend seemed all but providential. Throughout his storied work with T. Rex and David Bowie, Visconti has ranked among the foremost practitioners of the art of turning the pugnaciously flamboyant into the sublime. Who knew what fertile rains of alchemistic mutant magic he could bestow upon the second blooming of Stretford’s favorite gladiola? To top it all off, word leaked that the album was to be recorded in Rome, a city that’s mix of classicism and flash seemed the perfect foil for the refined, urbane Moz of the moment. Images of a man in a mauve three-button capering through the alleys of Trastevere humming a deliciously morbid couplet danced in the heads of all who read Visconti’s increasingly breathless blog and waited in rapt anticipation. So?
Unobjectionable, serviceable, occasionally flashing brilliance but never quite delivering, Ringleader of the Tormentors is a musical tug-of-war left permanently unresolved. The problem, sadly, is that the pairing of Morrissey and Visconti itself seems to have been ill-conceived. As a purely technical matter, Visconti’s sonic genius is apparent in sweeping rock symphonics like the Middle Eastern groove of “I Will See You In Far Off Places” (a sound admittedly captured over a decade ago by Morrissey’s Smiths bandmate Johnny Marr in The The) or the rain-soaked “Life Is A Pigsty” (the album’s best entry into the long, wonderful list of snarky Moz song titles).
But more often than not the production seems mired in gimmick or overkill. Whether it’s baldly taking a page from Bob Ezrin’s playbook and using a children’s choir or making the odd choice of occasionally doubling Morrissey’s vocals (which, if you think about it, almost never happens on Moz’s albums—in fact, that absence may be one of the more unique things about his recorded performances), the bombast of Visconti’s sonic layering all but effaces Morrissey’s effort, which is shrinking by his standards. While some arresting lyrical barbs pepper the album, Morrissey’s delivery is often uncharacteristically flat and forced—the sprightly quality that attends his best work seems lost in the pomp and gravitas. While the cutting guitars of Alain Whyte and Jesse Tobias (formerly of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, during their one-guitarist-per-week period) fuel such standouts as “You Have Killed Me” and “The Youngest Was the Most Loved,” and Ennio Morricone’s orchestra lends a curious Spaghetti Western flourish to “At Last I Am Born,” the songs themselves generally strain to fill the lofty, overwrought aural architecture Visconti builds for them—lonely ghosts in crumbling Roman temples of sound.
It’s certainly admirable that Moz and Tony got lost in the moment and went for something classic, but, on balance, Ringleader is strangely underwhelming.