Morrissey: the languor without the edge

The Boston Globe (Sep. 16, 1997)
review by Jim Sullivan

submitted by Daniel Cox

There were 2,800 people at the Orpheum Theatre Sunday night who did not give a flying fig about the fate of the New England Patriots and probably couldn't have picked Bill Parcells out of a police lineup. (The people at the box office, however, set up a black-and-white TV in the lobby.) The paying customers were there to worship at the Church of Morrissey, he being the former Smiths co-leader, the rangy, forlorn, enigmatic singer-songwriter whose persona ranges between asexual and bisexual and whose music mixes an oddly attacking quality with an omnipresent mopiness. Call it defiant despair.

The big problem during the 70-minute, 15-song set was that this year's Morrissey seems but a shadow of his former self. And, with a few blips suggesting otherwise (1992's "Your Arsenal" album), that's been his path for some time. The same gestures are there - the loose-limbed microphone-cord swinging, the faux boxing maneuvers - and Mozz, as he's nicknamed, remains every bit the icon to his devoted. But Morrissey, touring behind his ninth (!) post-Smiths solo album, "Maladjusted," is choosing songs from an ever-extensive catalog - while showing less and less range. He's always been a limited vocalist, but in the Smiths, Johnny Marr's resplendent melodies and shimmering guitar lines helped lift songs into the stratosphere. And Morrissey's arch wit - self-loathing, but slyly so, poking holes in British politics and mores - was a wicked delight. Even as his themes tended to be of loss and defeat.

Sunday, Morrissey started strong, with the title cut of the new album, a booming, muscular rocker, sung by a protagonist with "a soul full of loathing" who anticipates a great night of sex this way: "I flop on your bed with a headful of dread." Nevertheless, the sound was both grinding and glorious, with guitarists Alain Whyte and Boz Boorer churning up a storm. But the set slid downhill and then settled upon the plateau we've come to both anticipate and, well, dread. This is where the show looks dramatic, Mozz is posturing away, the band is crashing and bashing... but the songs aren't happening. The melodies just aren't there. The distinctiveness from song to song is negligible. And with Morrissey's vocals mostly tangled up in the mix Sunday, you couldn't really even delight at the wit or the wordplay. He sang five songs from "Maladjusted," retracing old themes without the verve. Staging? Minimal. Behind him on a scrim a black-and-white photo of a young boy, mouth slightly agape, flashed off and on.

"If you come up to the stage, you'll have me to deal with," said Morrissey, implicitly inviting stage crashers toward the end of the set. Indeed, a handful made it past security, hugged their idol, and were hauled off.

Hits? Not much, folks. He encored with "Shoplifters of the World Unite," but there was no "Suedehead," no "We Hate it When Our Friends Become Successful," no "National Front Disco." Of course, no Smiths stuff. Morrissey's set was relentlessly mid-tempo and even-keel. The rock got hard, the rock got soft, and it all seemed languid: inert passion.

A question remains as to whether Morrissey can keep his following, as he keeps releasing inferior albums and coasting through shows. Though the Orpheum was sold out, Morrissey has been in larger venues before. It would seem his audience is ebbing away bit by bit and making the smart choice.

The opening band, Elcka, had a swirling, early Duran Duran-ish sound that engaged on a minimal level.