Morrissey Wasn't the First to Sing About Tel Aviv. Duran Duran Did It in the '80s

Morrissey’s new album shows he’s too busy making supposedly provocative statements in the frequent interviews he gives, and neglecting his real talent

Morrissey, left, and Duran Duran.
Chris Pizzello / AP and Lee Besford / Reuters

The first single from Morrissey’s new album was promising. “Spent the Day in Bed” is critical of the media and its bad influence. The news makes you feel small and alone, Morrissey sings. Therefore he prefers to stay in bed. He’s no longer young, but still confused and yearning for dreams to come true. The last verse of the song, in which he pleads over and over, as if down on his knees, “Oh time, do what I wish,” resembles in tone and spirit the really great days of The Smiths.

Yet the album, “Low in High School,” isn’t one of the British singer’s finest. He no longer takes the same kind of care with the lyrics as he once did. They’re still quite clever, but mostly on paper. On the way to the recording studio, many have lost their punch. Or else the lines don’t connect as well as they should.

The quality of the music and the production – the weak side of Morrissey’s albums ever since The Smiths broke up and Johnny Marr went elsewhere – is also inconsistent. At times, the sound is fairly meager.

One reason for this is that Morrissey is too busy making supposedly provocative statements in the frequent interviews he gives, and neglecting his real talent. A person who is such a gifted writer, for whom even the most mediocre of his songs is a potential treasure, ought to be pouring his time and energy into his songwriting. That way he could still be influential – even to people who weren’t yet born when The Smiths were in their heyday – instead of sounding like someone remembered mostly for the fame of that fantastic Manchester band.

The new album has some decent songs, like “I Wish You Lonely,” which continues the Morrissey tradition of reveling in another’s misfortune, and “I Bury the Living,” an ironic take on the other side of pacifism, in which he sings, “You can’t blame me, I’m just an innocent soldier, Give me an order, I’ll blow up a border.” But these songs only underscore the missed opportunity: With a little more polishing – musically, lyrically, production-wise – they could have been so much stronger.

Like a mouthpiece

And there are also two songs that got the Jewish press in England stirred up – because of the references to Israel. One is the unabashedly pro-Israel “Israel” (“The sky is dark for many others, they want it dark for you as well”). Despite his powerful vocals and the beautiful thundering piano, one wonders why Morrissey felt compelled to adopt this kind of tone, to sound like the mouthpiece of another country that he doesn’t live in, that he is not a part of. Just as there is no reason for Roger Waters to intervene in Israeli affairs because he does not live here and is not part of it, there is no justification for Morrissey to defend it.

In the song “The Girl From Tel Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel,” he suddenly shifts to a style that combines flamenco and cabaret, which just isn’t him. The girl from Tel Aviv who wouldn’t kneel before her husband, a dictator or tyrant or king, would surely have wondered why in the world he decided to force his voice into this musical style that is so utterly foreign to him.

Tel Aviv has been mentioned before in British pop. Duran Duran included a somewhat oriental-sounding instrumental called “Tel Aviv” on their 1981 debut album. In its original version, the song also had lyrics. In it, Simon Le Bon, who had previously volunteered on a kibbutz in Israel, gazed upon a city that was quite different then as he sang, “I’ll just watch you pass on by, When I’m on my own in Tel Aviv, With the blocks to one side, The beach on the other, And the trees and the leaves.” How lovely and romantic.