Yahia Lababidi: Monks of LA


The songs of both these artists are generally perceived as music to slash your wrists to, and playing either of their records at a party signals its certain death (or yours). To their intensely loyal cult following, in the privacy of their bedrooms, they sing to each alone. And by making their anxieties public, these artists are Saviors to brethren of solitaries. Both are literary types; one is a novelist and poet, while the other as a librarian’s son was steeped in literature since youth. Yet both are not great poets, by the admission of one and despite the protestations of the other. Still, when they wrap their yearning around their words and make them sing, they are achingly lyrical. With a kind of duende (dark creative force) for a muse, both are poets of aloneness and longing, disaffection and death. And both have been away, for several years. One retired to a monastery, where he was given the name Jikan (Silent One), while the other has been living in monastic seclusion and silence. At the monastery, the former referred to himself as a bad monk on account of his other residence, in L.A. The latter, once regarded as quintessentially English, now resides in self-imposed exile in the same city



The Great Miserabilst



Stephen Patrick Morrissey, former front man of the seminal 80’s band, The Smiths, and currently a solo artist regarded as one of England’s most articulate lyricists, is one of L.A.’s two bad monks. As a singer-songwriter, Morrissey shares a prefix with terms like: morbid, moribund, morose etc… Dubbed The Great Miserabilist and Pope of Mope (among other less flattering or imaginative epithets) he was without a record label for as long as seven years, following the lackluster reception of his studio album, Maladjusted. Since then, he’s come back with two well-received new records, You are the Quarry and Ringleader of the Tormentors (although according to him, he’s never been away; it’s his listeners that are back).

Whatever the case, Morrissey was back in form, and both albums were works of heart. Musically more experimental, by his standards (with a flute solo, samples and electronic beats) and vocally more confident (full of gorgeous swells and trills) Quarry was a swishy affair, with 12 new unrequited love songs to life, indifferent lovers and, in keeping with tradition, the grave. Situating him in familiar territory. “Under slate-grey Victorian sky/ here you’ll find / despair and I,” he warbles plaintively in Come back to Camden, reminding those who strayed of his quietly harrowing emotional charm.

Lyrically, Morrissey is still the “bee’s knees” (as he once sang of himself): acid wit, intelligent, mournful and humorous at once. All filtered through “[his] self-deprecating skin and bones” as he croons on the searing I have forgiven Jesus in Quarry. With his penchant for titles that threaten to make the songs redundant, a cursory glance at the track list says it all; Irish Blood, English Heart, for example, is the name of the first released single from Quarry. Emotionally ambivalent and riddled with contradictions as ever, Morrissey is spurning sympathy in How could anyone know how I feel, while on another track, the misanthropic This world is full of crashing bores he desperately wonders why no one ever says to him “take me in your arms and love me.”

It’s like something straight out of one of Beckett’s tragicomedies: “Don’t touch me! Don’t question me! Don’t speak to me! Stay with me!” (Estragon, Waiting for Godot). Laugh till you weep. But, Morrissey has always been at his most beautiful when he’s pining, for love and understanding, a lost England, or life itself. (In an old Smiths song, The boy with the thorn in his side, he asks: … And when you want to Live/ How do you start? /Where do you go?/ Who do you need to know ?)

One wonders what would become of this poet of aborted passions if he were actually to get what he wants. Which partly accounts for the shock value of his latest offering, Ringleader. Much has been made of his uncharacteristically blunt sexual declarations and the candor with which he expresses them (the oft-quoted explosive kegs between his legs). And, it is disorienting to hear him finally giving himself a break and speaking plainly of desire -given his addiction to confessing in code, innuendo, and retractable hints. Now, he finally spells it out. There is someone. With legs. And he’s in between them. Gasp?!?

But, I suspect, what is equally affecting next to his trance-like exhilaration at finding love-sex is the number of times, and manner, in which he addresses ‘God’. Has Morrissey found faith, too? Did he always have it, and shied of uttering it, as yet another ‘love that dares not speak its name’? Dear God, he sings over a church organ with such clarity and transparency of heart, such naked emotion that the eyes well with tears, please help me.

For all his single-minded and long enduring despair, Morrissey seems an unlikely candidate for a spiritual seeker. Yet, despite himself his latest release, Ringleader of the Tormentors is another remarkable testament to his version of seeking and spiritual restlessness. (Nevermind, his sublimely staggeringly arrogance: forgiving Jesus on his previous album, and asking Him, mid-sex act on the current one, if this kind of thing has happened to Him).

In his own words, Morrissey’s still ‘turning sickness into (un)popular song’, and his capacity for contradiction remains undimmed. It’s the same old S.O.S/But with brand new broken fortunes he sighs on Life is a Pigsty over the bleak patter of falling rain, only to declare triumphantly: At Last I Am Born, in a march-like anthem of the same name. The pain, hasn’t really left him, however; it spills richly over from one song to the next.

On Ringleader, he calls it by it’s proper name–Can you stop the pain?–again and again, and with varying emotional inflection–menace, yodel, heartache–so that one suspects he experiences some form of voluptuous joy in the mere repetition of the word itself: ‘pain’. Characteristically, he remains death-haunted throughout Ringleaders; very likely, feeling most intensely when he suffers and seeing best through life’s illusions when longing for the end. “The future is ended by a long, long sleep” she sings, not unhappily.

Mercifully, the rest of the music on Ringleader is as robust, unpredictable and loaded as life, itself. Given all that seems to be going on, behind the scenes, ole Morrissey manages to (vocally) match this new music’s stride, having it appears found new life himself. At last he is born!



Yahia Lababidi: Monks of LA
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