Two years ago, one of the more surprising musical comebacks belonged to Morrissey. Long since written off by some as a relic of the past, You Are The Quarry managed at a stroke to re-establish his position as one of England’s greatest living songwriters. The songs were shot through with a sense of passion and urgency, and lyrically he’d been reinvigorated.
If You Are The Quarry was the sound of a man looking out of his window in Los Angeles with a barely disguised sense of disgust, then Ringleader Of The Tormentors sees Morrissey relocated to Rome. It’s a move that’s reflected throughout the album – there are namechecks to Italian film director Passolini and his film Accattone, and legendary Italian film composer Ennio Morricone even makes an appearance.
What’s even more surprising than this most quintessential of English men immersing himself in Italian culture is the fact that Morrissey has obviously taken Rome’s image of the City Of Love seriously. For break out the bunting, it appears that Steven Patrick has gone and got his oats at long last.
Of course, this being Morrissey, it’s a particularly tragic form of lust, but it’s a fair guarantee that there won’t be a more jaw dropping moment than hearing the nation’s most famous celibate singing “I’m spreading your legs, with mine inbetween”.
The opening I Will See You In Far Off Places is almost as much a statement of intent as Irish Blood English Heart was, with its thunderous drumbeat and almost Eastern swing. Lyrically, it’s classic Moz with lines such as “if your God bestows protection upon you/ And the U.S.A. doesn’t bomb you/ I believe I will see you someplace safe” being effortlessly tossed out. You won’t find many better opening songs than this during the year.
Yet even better is the following Dear God Please Help Me, which sees the aforementioned Morrissey sex life being discussed for the first time. “There are explosive kegs between my legs” croons Moz over some beautiful Morricone-assisted strings, and you’re hooked. Swooning, subtle and rather lovely, it’s one of the best things that Morrissey has ever recorded.
Following such a strong opening, it’s perhaps inevitable that the rest of the album isn’t so immediately breath-taking, although it’s pleasing to note that the rather disappointing single You Have Killed Me sounds much more at home in the context of an album (and includes a rather sweet namecheck to producer Tony Visconti).
The move to Rome isn’t the only change in Morrissey’s life – he’s also enlisted a new songwriting collaborator in guitarist Jesse Tobias. This signals a move towards a more musically upbeat album, although the overall tone is still dark and somewhat brooding, especially on the epic, 7 minute long Life Is A Pigsty.
Future single The Youngest Was The Most Loved is classic Morrissey, from the lyrical content (examining the early years of a killer) through the appearance of a childrens’ choir and the sound of Moz yodelling towards the end. The childrens’ choir makes a reappearance on the twisted The Father Who Must Be Killed, which sees Morrissey’s lyrics taking a whole new twist (“Stepchild, there’s a knife in the drawer in the room downstairs. You know what you must do!”)
The second half of the album takes time to work its magic but is ultimately just as rewarding. On The Streets I Ran is just downright hilarious, from the self-deprecating mention of “turning sickness into popular song” before begging to spared from some unstated menace by saying “take people from Pittsburgh, Pennyslvania, just spare me”.
The record can be accurately summed up by the closing words of the magnificently uplifting closing At Last I Am Born: “I once was a mess of guilt because of the flesh, it’s remarkable what you can learn once you are born”. Ringleader Of The Tormentors is the sound a man with a new sense of purpose, and in this extraordinary record he’s produced a masterpiece.