Music Reviews Morrissey

I made it through my mid-’80s teens and 20s without ever embracing The Smiths. Even as I expanded my tastes from the mainstream to the encompass the fringes of college radio, Morrissey and company always seemed too self-pitying, dour and, well, English, for this Springsteen and Dylan fan to even consider liking.

What I was responding to, of course, was as much the stereotype of the PIBs (people in black) around me as to the actual music itself. It was my loss; in dismissing The Smiths, I missed the beauty of Johnny Marr’s melodies, the gorgeous wall of guitars and the humor in Morrissey’s lyrics. It wasn’t until Morrissey’s irresistible 1994 solo single “The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get” that I actually got it (having a wife who adored the song, preventing me from ignoring it, helped). Since then, Morrissey and The Smiths have been my dirty little secret, a minor passion that few of my friends care to understand. And while I dragged my wife to her first Springsteen show in 1992, she didn’t have the chance to take me to see Morrissey until this year, when he returned to Wisconsin in support of You Are the Quarry, his first album since 1997.

If anything, Morrissey’s post-Smiths work is better than anything he did with the band. The guitars are punchier, the songwriting funnier and the singing more nuanced. The concert was a 90-minute retrospective (long by Morrissey standards; his old sets clocked in at around one hour) that covered every stop in his career. Though he opened with an oddly lifeless version of “How Soon is Now,” the closest thing The Smiths ever had to a hit, and closed with “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” from the band’s best album The Queen is Dead, most of the time in between was spent on the solo material.

Playing before a brightly lit, red “Morrissey” sign (a none-too-subtle reference to Elvis Presley’s 1968 comeback special), he and his band, all wearing Jobriath T-shirts, stuck mostly to a by-the-book approach, only occasionally adding anything to the songs that wasn’t already on the albums. At times, as on “How Soon is Now” and “The More You Ignore Me,” Morrissey seemed to be going through the motions, a clear example of an artist who’s bored with his biggest successes. Looking and acting more like a crooner than a rock star, Morrissey’s stage presence is all about dramatic gestures, but his between-song banter was downright hilarious. “Milwaukee’s famous for Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley and Jeffrey Dahmer. Which one are you most proud of?” he asked before launching into a biting “November Spawned a Monster” from 1990’s Bona Drag.

For the 2,000 or so faithful in the audience—and really, what do you have at a Morrissey concert but faithful?—he threw in a handful of b-sides, including the new “Munich Air Disaster 1958,” a song about a plane crash that killed most of the members of an English soccer team, and the bizarre “Don’t Make Fun of Daddy’s Voice,” one of the few songs that let guitarist Boz Boorer—who anchors the band and has been a musical partner at least as sympathetic as Marr—show off his improvisational skills.

Morrissey really came alive on the new material, especially the raging “Irish Blood, English Heart” and the anthemic “I Have Forgiven Jesus.” The latter song’s conceit, that of a human being needing to forgive one of the ultimate symbols of forgiveness, is radical enough, but to see the impeccably-dressed Morrissey deliver the lines “Why did you stick me in self-deprecating bones and skin?/ Jesus, do you hate me?” was both shocking and liberating, and summed up in five minutes the raison d’etre of his entire career.

(To read Paste writer Kurt B. Reighley’s review of You Are The Quarryclick here)

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