Morrissey review – this once charming man

Genting Arena, Birmingham
A handful of great Smiths songs can’t disguise the fact that the blustering 80s idol is in irreversible decline

It doesn’t take long, on this freezing night in Birmingham, before Morrissey makes one of his pronouncements. Somewhere between the dying notes of the opening Elvis Presley cover, You’ll Be Gone – licked by exotic flamenco heat – and the opening anglo jangle of Suedehead, from Morrissey’s solo debut, Viva Hate, released 30 years ago this month, the singer flicks the mic lead like a whip and declares: “Bring back free speech!”

Ah, free speech: you do feel a certain nostalgia for the idea, as you might for the younger, 80s Morrissey. Formerly uncontroversial, the liberty to air ideas and openly criticise authority is enshrined in the first amendment to the constitution of Morrissey’s adopted US.

Over the past few years, however, the goalposts of political engagement have shifted drastically. Now the most ardent advocates of free speech tend to be figures who have something ugly to say.

The quip, halfway through this tour for his latest album, Low in High School, suggests Morrissey is still smarting from his run-in with the German newspaper Der Spiegel last year. Briefly, the paper reported Morrissey’s view that Kevin Spacey – accused of serious sexual misconduct – had been “unnecessarily attacked”, only for Morrissey to claim he was misquoted. In response, the newspaper put its audio of the disputed interview online and Morrissey vowed never to speak to print media again.

For a lapsed believer such as myself, Morrissey utterances like these tend to induce full-body cringes, the kind that have punctuated the veteran fan’s experience over the years. A sense of chagrin percolates anew: I am a grownup. I realise many of my idols probably have feet of clay.

And yet the disappointment gnaws. The 80s Morrissey was the standard-bearer for everything brave, beautiful and idiosyncratic. His was not the snarl of punk, nor the machine-sulk of post-punk, but a call to affective and moral arms that differed in substance and style from everything that preceded and surrounded it. Here was despair, arrogance, lust, grandeur, self-pity, vegetarianism and waspishness, all delivered with the florid commitment of a true original. In recent days, it was announced that the Smiths’ formative years will be the subject of a soon-to-be-published graphic biography by Greek-Australian artist Con Chrisoulis, reiterating the huge sway Morrissey’s artistic output still has on generations of music fans.

Morrissey gave British pop new hues on the emotional spectrum. But since 1992, when he supported Madness in north London’s Finsbury Park wrapped in a union jack, the singer’s pronouncements have tended towards the controversial. In 2010, Morrissey called Chinese people “a subspecies” because of their cruelty to animals. In 2013, he stated that he liked Nigel Farage “a great deal”. Last year, he seemed to criticise the Ukip leadership election election process on 6 Music, wondering whether it had been rigged to prevent an anti-Islamic candidate, Anne Marie Waters, winning. Last week, at a gig in Glasgow, he threw shade on Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon (“Those hands will be in anybody’s pocket”). The word “bell-end” tends to appear in the comments section under reports of his antics on this organisation’s website.

Watch the video for Morrissey’s Suedehead.

In song, he appears to believe that voting in democratic elections endorses police brutality. “Every time you vote you support the process,” runs the lyrics to World Peace Is None of Your Business – a theme updated by Low in High School’s Who Will Protect Us from the Police?. It begins tonight with penetrating electronics and guitars that sound like a malevolent didgeridoo, and ends with a flourish, but grinds on inelegantly in between. Police brutality is terrible. You just want the song to be better than this.

Similarly, the rest of Morrissey’s set veers from moments of musical serendipity and great showmanship to churning mid-tempo bluster. A tremendous pre-gig montage of film clips and vintage performances serves as tonight’s support act, and finds room for performances by James Brown and speeches by James Baldwin. A clip of Dionne Warwick singing the magnificent Don’t Make Me Over echoes around the comfortably full-enough arena. Reading the runes, it seems Morrissey would like to signal that he feels some kinship with African Americans.

Morrissey retains an intriguingly complex relationship with Hispanic culture, too, having found a home in LA and an unexpectedly enthusiastic fanbase in Mexican Americans. Spanish inflections illuminate a number of songs tonight, not least When You Open Your Legs, a cut from Low in High School that is among Morrissey’s most ribald (and persuasive) recent tunes. Of Spain itself, though, he would prefer to say “nothing”, as he puts it, before launching into The Bullfighter Dies, a righteous takedown of Spanish bullfighting. This heartfelt plea for the underdog to come out on top for once has, in recent times, taken the place in Morrissey’s set once reserved for Meat Is Murder, complete with gory scenes of the blood sport.

Over a number of tracks tonight, Morrissey and his tour-honed band prove themselves adept at channelling not only those Spanish influences, but electronic inflections and Smiths-era classics alike. Low in High School divided critics – cautiously hailed in some quarters, but panned by others as yet more evidence of Morrissey’s decline. The writer Stephen Troussé in Uncut summed up Low in High School as a series of memorable bullet points: “Fake news, the world burns. But I have discovered oral sex… and did I mention I received the Freedom of Tel Aviv?”

Many of the new songs leave the crowd attentive, but physically unmoved. One stands out, though, as strong a 21st-century Morrissey cut as you could wish for. Spent the Day in Bed is as musically light-footed tonight as it is lyrically breezy. The respite from politics is helpful.

A splendid cover of the Pretenders’ Back on the Chain Gang points up a little connection between Chrissie Hynde’s “ohhhhh” in Chain Gang and the “Ah-ah-ah-ah” of “I’m so sorry” from Morrissey’s Suedehead. The Smiths’ How Soon Is Now remains magnificent, as does Every Day Is Like Sunday. After Hold On to Your Friends, a terrace chant of Morrissey’s name goes up and the singer seems genuinely touched. “You don’t have to,” he says. “You’re here. That’s all that matters.” I’m still struck by the song’s words: “A bond of trust has been abused,” it goes. “Something of value may be lost.”


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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