Ever since I started acquiring a relatively sizable body of musical knowledge, I have detected very few noticeable patterns in my taste. One pattern that’s fairly consistent, however, is that when a male singer poses for a photo op adjusting his tie and looking ponderously at the camera, I’m generally going to want to punch him in the face. The one glaring exception to this rule is Morrissey, the mother of all mopers (I use the feminine intentionally). While the former Smiths frontman became the blueprint for other musical prettyboys like Ryan Adams, Rufus Wainwright, and Sufjan Stevens, I somehow find myself constantly giving Morrissey a pass.
That’s because when I try to construct a mental image of Morrissey as opposed to those others, that image is aural, not visual. Morrissey’s delicate but spot-on vocals and irascible charm as frontman for the Smiths characterized decade-defining albums like The Queen is Dead and Meat is Murder, and even without musical soulmate/arch-nemesis Johnny Marr providing melodic firepower, he has crafted some of the finer pop albums of the last 20 years. I challenge you to spin 1992’s Your Arsenal alongside Jeff Buckley’s Grace, and then try to tell me that Grace is the better album.
A Morrissey concert, of course, is not limited to solo material, and his concert at the Auditorium Theatre Tuesday night was sandwiched by two Smiths classics: “The Queen is Dead” and “How Soon is Now?” Still, it was impossible to tell the difference between the solo and Smiths material except for the most ardent fans, a dynamic that was helped by Morrissey’s earnestness throughout the night. Morrissey has a strong connection to Chicago—he performed his only U.S. show here in November, and his rhythm section consists of Chicago natives—and he was fully appreciative of a crowd that was more than willing to hang onto every word he said (and sang).
Morrissey makes statements that would seem pathetically emo if uttered by anyone except him, and Tuesday was no different: He said the rainy, cloudy Chicago day was his favorite type of weather. One of his most notoriously angsty comments occurred in the ’80s when he was asked who was the last person to see him naked. Morrissey’s response? “Almost certainly the doctor who brought me into this cruel world.” Rest easy, Morrissey lovers, because he at least partially violated this statement, throwing one of the many shirts he sported that night into the crowd and brandishing his 46-year-old pale British chest to thousands of shrieking fans. That being said, Morrissey relied less on showy stage antics, instead focusing on singing each song to the best of his ability, which he did in spades. For such a towering personality, he also made sure to give his backing band their time in the spotlight, and members seemed to add an extra unique spirit to the night, even if they were dressed in identical tux vests and bow ties.
Morrissey’s performance was remarkably consistent and eclectic, and no song felt out of place. Frankly, he has so many excellent songs in his catalog to work with that it would be a disappointment if he couldn’t put together a 90-minute set of stone classics. “The Queen is Dead” led straight into another Smiths classic, “William, It Was Really Nothing.” With all the talk of his harrowing vocals, Morrissey has never received enough credit as a hard rocker, and I was immensely excited to see his Neil Young–esque “You’re Gonna Need Someone on Your Side” on the set list. That being said, the best songs of the night were still Morrissey’s prettiest, and his jaw-dropping performance of “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” was the closest a rock concert has ever come to bringing me to tears.
Classifying Morrissey’s current status is a bit tricky. He’s not really indie. Despite the lightbulb-wearing, squeaky, piano-and-drums opening act Kristeen Young, Morrissey projects have cracked the Top 20 on multiple occasions. You can’t really call him a has-been, either, as 2004’s You are the Quarry and 2006’s Ringleaders of the Tormentors were just as successful as anything else in his catalog. What you can call him, however, is one of the greatest and most iconic musicians for anyone under the age of 50. Like Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, and—to a lesser extent—Paul Westerberg of the Replacements, Morrissey has transcended his original cult status and become every bit as crucial a singer/songwriter to the rock ’n’roll canon as the Dylans and Lennons our dads listened to.
By the end of the night, and even through some of the encore, Morrissey was performing his songs curled up in the fetal position—still his most natural position after 25 years. Morrissey’s lack of ego made the devotion of his fans even more inspiring, and though security guards kept audience members from rushing to the stage, all they really wanted to do was what every concertgoer wanted to do that night: give Morrissey a hug.