Watching Morrissey perform is about as likely to transform a casual observer into an adoring fan as seeing a cross is to convert an agnostic to Christianity. The onetime college-rock idol's sold-out Fitzgerald Theater appearance was as much ritual as rock show, and few of the 1,000 attendees shelled out $85 just because they liked some of the guy's songs. They went to immerse in the thick yet tremulous croon they first heard on their Smiths' LPs, that had captured the sudden and inexplicable sensation of being turned on by your first sudden and inexplicable bout of teen misery. They went to feel that good about feeling bad all over again.
Not long ago, a series of ailments had forced the singer to cancel three shows at the Orpheum in two years, but once the half-hour introductory video began, we were pretty sure we wouldn't be sent home early. The montage was a little like peeking through Morrissey's YouTube history: the Ramones ripping through “Loudmouth,” Anne Sexton reciting “Wanting to Die,” cross-dressing old-time British comics delivering indecipherably naughty punchlines. But the clips didn't exactly indicate what was to come. There would be more poetry than punk, and the only drag was the lugubrious Smiths oldie “Meat is Murder,” set to a gruesome video of slaughterhouse practices, the militantly vegan Morrissey's attempt to shame and disgust any benighted carnivores in the house.
Stepping on stage, Steven Patrick Morrissey himself was as beetlebrowed and self-possessed as ever, and he looked no less Neil Diamond than he should have. The silver “v” that traced the plunging neckline of his black button-down shirt was futuristically glam, his jeans were age-appropriately baggy – call the ensemble “heartthrob casual.” Fans thronged in the orchestra pit, arms outstretched like miracle-thirsty lepers; two frowning bouncers discouraged all but a few quickly thwarted devotees from even attempting to storm the stage. “We are the world,” he said simply, as though relishing a private irony. Then he began the show where he began his solo career did, with “Suedehead,” his 1988 ode to post-coital self-pity.
After 56 years of being Morrissey, the guy has it figured out. He doesn't seduce a crowd and he doesn't interpret his material. He just, you know, kind of Morrisseys. No, scratch “kind of,” insert “absolutely,” and shrug or thrill to that performance style as you will. He enunciates with thoughtful force, but his delivery crests on its own melodic patterns rather than bestowing some new shade of literal meaning of his lyrics. There's nuance to his singing, and he was in full, fine voice. But whatever he sang, you could imagine him singing a different set of lyrics to the same tune, in the same tone. That uniformity is both part of the fun and no fun at all.
Morrissey's facial expressions operate at a similar remove from his lyrics. Eyebrows would arch upward, lids sometimes shut, the rest of his face going along for the ride; then they'd snap back with an elastic fury, carrying his head forward as well. His arm motions were equally stylized, whether swooping emphatically like a 19th century Shakespearean or stretching wide as though to receive an imaginary lover. His mouth found busy work during the spaces between words, with pursing lips, an expressive underbite, and a casual grimace, all registering some stimulus disconnected from the song itself – a suddenly recollected slight, a twinge of regret, a poorly digested dinner.
Morrissey didn't say much between songs, and enthusiastic male shouts cut his one attempt at banter short. “Just shut up,” the singer shot back (to applause), abandoning his anecdote with a well-received gripe about texting that trailed off into a plaintive observation. “Words. Communication. Is it really too much to ask?” Really, is it? Then he sang “Kiss Me a Lot.”
Morrissey packed 19 songs into 90 minutes, and the show was as crisp and economical as those numbers suggest, though less brisk. Five songs came from his most recent album, World Peace Is None of Your Business, and a few more from his past decade of recording, during which his music has settled into a mid-tempo rock groove. Sometime the band pounded more heavily, sometimes they swung more friskily, but always their dynamics were limited, with choruses sometimes hinting at the anthemic rather than achieving it. For those of us who appreciate Morrissey's wit more than we thrill to his charisma, the one-speed-fits-all set allowed his stylized vocals to degrade from mesmerizing to narcotic over time.
His five-piece band was anchored as it has been for years by guitarist Boz Boorer, a jowly fan favorite, but its MVP was Gustavo Manzur. He contributed flamenco guitar, accordion, even didgeridoo, as well as a florid piano introduction to “Will Never Marry,” and he took center stage to sing the final verse of “Speedway” in Spanish.
The show picked up toward the end with the first Smiths song of the night, “Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before,” the bleakly peppy early solo hit “Everyday Is Like Sunday,” and the life-in-me-yet reminiscence “First of the Gang to Die.” But remember what I said about “Meat Is Murder”? A show-stopper in all the wrong ways, and it came too late in the night to even go get a drink.
After leaving the stage, Morrissey returned for a third Smiths song, “What She Said,” but the real encore came when he ripped open his shirt to bare a muscular gut. (Even vegans crave beefcake.) He then cast his garment off to the multitudes, a half-dozen of whom clenched their portion of it for nearly five minutes before it was divided among them. Souvenirs were for sale in the lobby, but relics had to be fought for on the floor.
World Peace Is None of Your Business
Staircase at the University
Kiss Me a Lot
I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris
I Will See You in Far-Off Places
The Bullfighter Dies
Mama Lay Softly on the Riverbed
One of Our Own
Will Never Marry
Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before (The Smiths)
Everyday Is Like Sunday
First of the Gang to Die
Meat Is Murder (The Smiths)
Now My Heart Is Full
What She Said (The Smiths)