A lot of changes took place both culturally and politically between the release of Morrissey’s mediocre Maladjusted in 1997 and his well-received return You Are the Quarry in 2004. The seven year gap between LPs saw the former Smiths frontman relocating to Los Angeles. His new record deal with a new label had Morrissey negotiating for more control over his work. This second act to his solo career brought with it a conscious decision to write more literally, taking aim at modern American politics and sociological foibles using much more obvious lyrical imagery than he’d had in the past. In addition, upon his return, Morrissey found that his fame had extended to Hispanic youths in the United States and as such he began to wisely recognize this potent new demographic in both his song choices and presentation. The three studio albums leading up to Low in High School were largely regarded as standard Morrissey fare and were generally received favorably. His latest album, however, finds Morrissey doing a 180 in terms of approach when held up next to his last full-length, World Peace Is None of Your Business.
Everything about Morrissey’s new record, up to and including the cover art, which features a pouty youth with an ax in one hand and a sign with an anti-monarchy message in the other, roars testosterone. Low in High School is unusually libidinous considering it’s coming from a man who has described himself as a celibate asexual and who only two albums ago sang a song about literally throwing his arms around a city because no human would accept his love. “If I get there, would you meet me? Wrap your legs around my face just to greet me?” Morrissey asks in the most glorious fashion during the final soaring minute of the gorgeous “Home Is a Question Mark”. “In Your Lap” finds the narrator ending each verse, which describe the actions of a horrifically oppressive government regime, with the line, “…and I just want my face in your lap.” Finally, “When You Open Your Legs” has Morrissey getting thrown out of a club in Tel Aviv and not caring because “Everything I know, deserts me now, when you open your legs.”
There are more than a couple bold musical style choices on Low in High School: “The Girl from Tel Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel” is a fun five-minute tango, “All the Young People Must Fall in Love” has Morrissey’s band performing a soulful, churchy clap-a-long while he sings about presidents being quickly forgotten, and the instrumentation for the aforementioned “When You Open Your Legs” is a clever nod to Luis Arcaraz’s “The Bullfighter’s Song”. Oddly enough, it’s only when Morrissey returns to styles he’s had success with in the past that things don’t work as well. The warped synth-glam of “I Wish You Lonely” feels forced. Morrissey sings each line at the top of his lungs, and by the end his delivery feels weary and banal. “I Bury the Living” is a tense and unnecessarily long six-and-a-half minutes (not including the ambient minute-long field recording intro), which becomes fatiguing by the time it has reached its oddly tacked-on world music-inspired guitar ending.
It’s entirely possible that Joe Chiccarelli, the producer of Morrissey’s last album and this one, conspired alongside the singer to construct Low in High School as the macho flipside to the thematically softer World Peace Is None of Your Business. Although this concept succeeds most of the time, the record remains somewhat hindered by its weaker moments. Still, as an artist midway through his third decade creating original music in a fickle industry, Low in High School proves that Morrissey remains unafraid to try new things and take his work in bold new directions.