Can you separate the artist from the art? It’s a question that’s following Morrissey fans around like a bad smell at the moment.
Mozza’s always loved pressing buttons and grinding gears but lately every time the singer opens his mouth it seems to induce inside-shrivelling cringes and facepalms. Some of his recent outbursts, which include hailing Brexit as “magnificent” and appearing to defend Kevin Spacey in German newspaper Spiegel at the height of #metoo (he claims he was misquoted), have tested the previously unwavering patience of even the most ardent fans.
So when he whips a piece of paper out three songs into tonight’s set, announcing, “I’ve got some complaints…” it prompts an understandably nervous laugh from some corners of the Royal Albert Hall. When it transpires these are merely a headache-inducing spotlight and an abundance of security in front of the stage, the relief is palpable. After all, previous shows on this tour have seen him slag off Nicola Sturgeon in Glasgow and shout “Brexit” repeatedly at the end of ‘Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up On The Stage’.
Tonight though, apart from one moment when he shouts “Bring back free speech!” Moz is on his best behaviour. Indeed, for a famously miserabilist, out-to-shock contrarian, his between song patter is quite endearing. He seems genuinely humbled by the devotion of the crowd in such a lovely, iconic venue and recommends we “be kind to ourselves, be kind to animals and be kind to your mum.” I mean who can argue with that?
In fact, if you judge the man on performance alone, we find an artist who’s, vocally at least, performing and sounding better than ever. From the moment he lets that glorious, golden timbre flutter up into the Hall’s high, brocaded ceiling on opener The Last Of The Famous International Playboys, we’re reminded why material from The Smiths and his early solo career have been held in a quarantine of critical adoration for decades. The wistful jangle pop of early single ‘Suedehead’ is as ageless and graceful as ever. Rare airings of ‘Jack The Ripper’ and ‘Munich Air Disaster 1958’ are special moments for spellbound fans and ‘Speedway’ and ‘I’m Not Sorry’ revisit wonderful moments in his solo catalogue.
Then again, 'Low In High School' attracted some of the worst reviews of Morrissey’s career with particular ire aimed at the lyrics, once an area where Morrissey was untouchable. Tonight he mostly sticks to the best bits of that album – thankfully the tone-deaf ‘Bury The Living’ has been scrubbed from setlist. The muscular ‘My Love, I’d Do Anything For You’, sharp-tongued ‘I Wish You Lonely’ and brilliantly droll ‘Spent The Day In Bed’ are all reminders of how bloody great Moz can be when he’s not banging on about frankly questionable worldviews none of his right-minded fans want to listen to.
In his hands, a cover of the Pretenders ‘Back On The Chain Gang’ could pass as a Smiths classic ... and then finally there’s a majestic rendition of ‘How Soon Is Now’. The juttering, droning intro has fans jumping to their feet in absolute elation, while it’s brave and beautiful lyrics are a reminder of why this man once spoke for a generation of music fans and anyone who ever felt lonely, silenced or awkward.
It ensures that, against all the odds, tonight’s show is a triumph, and a reminder that when it comes to vocal prowess at least, Morrissey remains in a class of one.
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Words: Dannii Leivers
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