Morrissey review this once charming man

A handful of great Smiths songs cant disguise the fact that the blustering 80s idol is in irreversible decline

It doesnt 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, Youll Be Gone licked by exotic flamenco heat and the opening anglo jangle of Suedehead, from Morrisseys 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 Morrisseys 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 Morrisseys 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 fans 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 Morrisseys 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 Londons Finsbury Park wrapped in a union jack, the singers 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 anybodys pocket). The word bell-end tends to appear in the comments section under reports of his antics on this organisations website.


figcaption class=”caption” caption–img”> Watch the video for Morrisseys 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 Schools 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 Morrisseys 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 tonights support act, and finds room for performances by James Brown and speeches by James Baldwin. A clip of Dionne Warwick singing the magnificent Dont 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 Morrisseys 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 Morrisseys 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 Morrisseys decline. The writer Stephen Trouss 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 Hyndes ohhhhh in Chain Gang and the Ah-ah-ah-ah of Im so sorry from Morrisseys Suedehead. The Smiths How Soon Is Now remains magnificent, as does <a href=”” title=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Every Day Is Like Sunday. After Hold On to Your Friends, a terrace chant of Morrisseys name goes up and the singer seems genuinely touched. You dont have to, he says. Youre here. Thats all that matters. Im still struck by the songs words:A bond of trust has been abused, it goes. Something of value may be lost.

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