Vinyl Corner is a feature where we take a look at vinyl
pressings of various albums and weigh them up to see just how good they sound,
how well they’re pressed and what sort of packaging to expect – as well as giving
a brief overview of the music itself. This time we’re taking in the latest
offering from one of the most divisive yet enduring figures in alternative
music history; love him or loathe him, you’ll likely have an opinion one way or
another. We’re talking, of course, about Morrissey
– and his latest album ‘I Am Not A Dog On A Chain’.
Although Steven Patrick Morrissey has never been one to keep his views to himself, it has in recent years become increasingly difficult to separate the man from his work. Of course, that wouldn’t be something that many felt the need to do had his views not become increasingly vitriolic and bitter over the course of the 2010s but, as it now stands, it’s difficult to discuss his musical work without first prefixing some convoluted discourse on his worldview. While that’s understandable – and, indeed, there’s nothing good to be gained from sweeping his views under the carpet – it also shouldn’t be allowed to skew perception of his music. It has, however, been easy to dismiss Morrissey’s work of late – either on grounds of his politics for those so inclined or, more pertinently, the quality of his work. 2017’s ‘Low In High School’ marked something of a stumble; despite a bold production style and a clutch of genuinely great songs, it was an inconsistent and messy collection that presented the listener with little reason to return to it after those few initial plays. Last year’s ‘Californian Son’ did little to placate those concerns and, despite a few standout moments, its status as a collection of covers gave it the feel of a stopgap release more than a full-blown artistic statement.
But the past is another country, as they say, and Morrissey’s latest outing arrives in timely fashion, considering his long-term appeal to shut-ins and indie-introverts the world over. Not only that, but it also reconfirms him as an enduring talent. Though fundamentally not dissimilar to ‘Low In High School’ in certain respects – Joe Chiccarelli’s punchy, boisterous production chief amongst them – ‘I Am Not A Dog On A Chain’ is a far stronger collection of songs. Indeed, Morrissey is on better form lyrically than he has been in years; he’s still eager to cook up as much controversy as any one album can hold, of course – but it would hardly be a Moz album if he weren’t. More importantly, his signature wit remains unabated; there are some genuinely funny moments here on his thirteenth solo album and his voice remains as remarkably ageless as it has been across the entirety of his career. Long-time musical collaborators make a return here amongst a few new faces, and he sounds comfortable and confident amongst the musical backdrop his group have cooked up. He’s not above a few missteps; ‘I Am Not A Dog On A Chain’ isn’t above the odd song that fails to fully convince but, in fairness to him, few artists three and a half decades into their careers are capable of crafting an album anywhere near this engaging.
Perhaps better still is the fact that Morrissey has freshly regained his sense of adventure. If ‘Low In High School’ suffered from any one issue the most, then it was relative lack of imagination. Though not exactly formulaic, it did feel like the work of an artist looking back over his work with furrowed brow and wondering quite how he could recapture the magic. No such affectations are palpable here on ‘I Am Not A Dog On A Chain’. It’s an album that sets his idiosyncratic croon to an urgent, surprisingly excitable backing of bristling synths and snappy drums, the rocking guitars that have come to define much of his output consigned to a more textural, ancillary status here. It’s a marked shift and one that sets the album out as the most experimental Morrissey record in over a decade. His ability to balance a regained sense of exploratory vitality with a largely vivid, memorable set of songs has lent him not only his best album since 2014’s mostly excellent ‘World Peace Is None Of Your Business’ but a return to form after the relative doldrums of his past two albums.
As with ‘Low In High School’, this latest Morrissey effort comes in a range of different colour vinyl options. We’re reviewing the standard black vinyl edition here but those so inclined should be able to hunt down one of the limited colour pressings without too much trouble. A quick glance at the matrices reveals that this vinyl edition of ‘I Am Not A Dog On A Chain’ was pressed by Germany’s ever-popular Optimal Media GmbH. They’re one of the busiest pressing plants in the world, producing such a large quantity of new records that, whether you realise it or not, you probably own something manufactured by them if you’ve bought even a handful of albums pressed within the last decade. That voracious output does come at a cost, however, and Optimal Media’s output can be frustratingly inconsistent in quality. Fortunately, precautions were evidently taken here as this is a quality pressing with excellent sound throughout. With ‘I Am Not A Dog On A Chain’ clocking in at the best part of fifty minutes in length, there’s an awful lot of music here to be squeezed onto just one disc. For an indication of the ideal amount of music to include on one disc, consider the fact that back when LPs were first invented it was advised that no more than 22 minutes of music should be included per side. Although a more cautious label might have been tempted to release ‘I Am Not A Dog On A Chain’ as a double LP, the sound quality remains excellent throughout this pressing. The fidelity suffers none for the length of each side and the fat, angry synth-basslines roar with no less intensity here that they might have even if the album had been spread across two discs. The mastering, then, certainly impresses – and the extended side lengths offer a definite convenience, if nothing else. But that’s not the whole story, of course; there’s also the pressing quality to consider. Fortunately, that lives up to the high standard set by the mastering. Although Optimal Media pressings can sometimes suffer from intrusive crackle, the surfaces are consistently clean throughout our copy. The noise floor is low and imperfections such as crackling and popping are notable only by their absence. The record itself is roughly mid-weight; it certainly isn’t a full 180 grams but nor does it feel lightweight when handled. Surfaces are also visually clean, being free of the fingerprints and scuffs that all too often appear on new releases.
As with most Morrissey albums of recent times, the merits of ‘I Am Not A Dog On A Chain’s artwork are very much up for debate. Those fond of album covers that consist in the vast majority of the artist’s slightly blurry face will doubtless be thrilled but the rest of us may have our reservations. Qualms pertaining to the art direction aside, the packaging and presentation of Morrissey’s latest is actually very impressive. The cover is a fairly standard non-gatefold design; it’s nothing special in itself – although there’s certainly nothing wrong with it – but the cardstock is reasonably solid and the spine benefits from clearly legible text that will help the album to be picked out on even the most crowded of shelves. More impressive by far are the inserts; the record itself is included in a printed card inner sleeve that gives full credits for each track. It’s a welcome addition, of course, and it’s printed on a nice quality cardstock but, as with any such sleeve, it doesn’t provide a great deal of protection for the record. As always, therefore, we’d advise storing the LP in a polylined generic inner sleeve. Better yet is the inclusion a separate insert giving full lyrics to each song; say what you like about Morrissey, but his writing has always been a central aspect of his craft, so inserts such as these are little short of essential. A whopping-great barcode printed onto the back cover is a rather ugly inclusion and it would have been better placed as a sticker on the shrinkwrap but, even so, a definite degree of care has been put into the overall presentation of this release.
‘I Am Not A Dog On A Chain’ is an adventurous, engaging return to form. It’s a record that will inspire controversy as sure as the sun is warm but, then again, would it really be a Morrissey album if it didn’t? A high quality vinyl release is enough to ensure that those sufficiently impressed with this latest effort can enjoy it in real style.
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