The first thing you hear is an ominous buzz, which is soon overlaid with a careful percussion pattern. Then—glory hallelujah!—the clouds part with a heavenly glissando, and Morrissey's voice beams down like Glinda the Good Witch. The words he delivers over the gorgeous cascade of melody: "World peace is none of your business/So would you kindly keep your nose out/The rich must profit and get richer/And the poor must stay poor." The words dance above the music like a lullaby, while politely pointing out that Western humanity's only hope is revolution. "Each time you vote, you support the process," our melodious overlord repeats, over and over, as the song draws to a close.
So begins World Peace Is None of Your Business, the 10th solo album by Morrissey, a singer/songwriter who's devoted the past 30 years to channeling his punkish rage into highly dramatic pop-rock. A lifelong devotee of Nico and the New York Dolls, Morrissey has never made music as stark and ugly as that of his idols, opting to wrap his pain and fury in sunny, often swooningly melodic pop. When he goes for the jugular against a worthy opponent—like on World Peace Is None of Your Business's title track or You Are the Quarry's "America Is Not the World"—the results are uniquely bracing: a bookish nerd hucking musical Molotov cocktails you'll be humming along to as the world burns.
Running alongside Morrissey-the-truth-teller is another iteration of the artist—the miniature portraitist of radical empathy and a deep love of the perverse, who's showcased in great form on the new record. "Earth Is the Loneliest Planet" finds Morrissey fitting a flamenco-folk track with an empathetic snapshot of transgender struggle: "Day after day, you say, 'One day'... But there's always a reason why you're refused/They always blame you."
Then there's "Neal Cassady Drops Dead," an impressionistic diptych with moral attached and the type of song no one but Morrissey makes. The first verse collects images of Allen Ginsberg learning of the death of Neal Cassady, the Kerouac-inspiring tramp with whom Ginsberg reportedly had a 20-year sexual relationship. The second verse morphs into an Edward Gorey–esque listing of sickened children, from "babies full of rabies" to "minor's melanoma." The whole thing wraps up with a question from on high: "Victim or life's adventurer—which of the two are you?" Underneath the opaque lyrical picture, Boz Boorer's guitar churns out muscular glam-rock chords. It's one of a handful of Morrissey tracks vying for the title of Oddest Song Ever, and it goes out on a nonsense-syllable sing-along you'll be tempted to join.
All of this—extreme characters, gorgeous guitars, pointed lyrics—is de rigueur for Morrissey. So what makes World Peace feel like his most substantial record since You Are the Quarry? A lot of it is the sound—producer Joe Chiccarelli lets the band roam far and wide, but makes sure every experiment signifies and coheres. And he nails each of Morrissey's signature sonic styles (literate folk, guitar stomp, ornate soundscapes) perfectly.
But it also should be noted that this is an unusually outward-focused album for Morrissey. Of 12 tracks, only three are autobiographical—the lustfully pedantic rocker "Kiss Me a Lot," the friend-mourning finale "Oboe Concerto," and the album's conceptual peak, "I'm Not a Man," which finds Morrissey enumerating the variety of ways the song's title is true, before delivering his record's best line: "And I never would destroy this planet I'm on—what do you think I am, a man?"
Elsewhere, it's all Morrissey as observer and empathizer, except when it isn't. There's not a whit of empathy to be found in "Kick the Bride Down the Aisle," a melodramatic mid-tempo number deriding a young wife-to-be who "just wants a slave... so that she can laze and graze for the rest of her days." It's a mean, petty gesture from a man who, at his best, isn't afraid to shout down the world's biggest monsters.