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The Baltimore Sun

Years of Refusal

Morrissey

[Attack/Lost Highway Records] *** 1/2

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Over the years, Morrissey has built his respected reputation on poetic songs thick with misery. The British rock star usually renders them in a sweeping, theatrical style. After a seven-year recording hiatus, he returned with 2004's You Are the Quarry, which garnered international acclaim and pushed him back into the spotlight. Two more strong albums - Live at Earls Court (2005) and Ringleader of the Tormentors (2006) - quickly followed, cementing the performer's comeback.

On Years of Refusal, Morrissey's new CD out today, the artist hasn't tweaked the formula very much. He is still, for the most part, quite dour. But the musical juxtaposition - bright, aggressive punk-pop arrangements driving bleak tales - pulls you in. The former Smiths lead singer, who turns 50 this year, is a more confident, nuanced vocalist these days. Underneath the propulsive music and somber lyrics, a refreshing spunkiness seethes.

The set kicks off with a sense of urgency. Crunching guitars and crashing drums open "Something is Squeezing My Skull," where Morrissey explores mental fragility: "I'm doing very well/I can block out the present and past now." The insistent arrangement and the artist's soaring vocals are some of the best on the album. It's an almost exuberant tune about the woes of depression and anxiety.

The momentum continues on "Mama Lay Softly on the Riverbed," another standout. The tempo is a little slower, propelled by a marching beat and fuzzy guitars. Morrissey wanders into darker lyrical territory - this time, pondering the suicide of a loved one. In an assured voice, he belts: "Mama, why did you do it?/What drove you to an early grave?"

The artist isn't called the "Pope of Mope" for nothing.

The intensity lessens about midway into the album, and the songs become a little bland and melodramatic. Save for Jeff Beck's guitar on "Black Cloud," the cut doesn't leave much of an impression. The same is true for the current single, "I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris," on which Morrissey sings "only stone and steel accept my love."

Things pick back up with "That's How People Grow Up" and "All You Need Is Me," two excellent tracks that appeared on Morrissey's Greatest Hits last year. In the context of the album, the songs become livelier.

Years of Refusal isn't as seamless as You Are the Quarry, but the music feels inspired throughout. And Morrissey's full, urgent vocals are strangely comforting as he sings about unshakable despair.

Download these: : "Something is Squeezing My Skull," "Mama Lay Softly in the Riverbed," "All You Need is Me," "It's Not Your Birthday Anymore"

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