Morrissey stays relevant with timely opinions and timeless talent

By Miriam Benjamin

Throughout his long career, Morrissey has never been one to hold back his opinions. In his 2004 song “The World is Full of Crashing Bores,” Morrissey slams musicians who fail to adequately utilize their platform: “Lock-jawed pop stars/ Thicker than pig shit/ Nothing to convey/ So scared to show intelligence/ It might smear their lovely career.” As a pop star, Morrissey believes it is his responsibility to address social issues, and he did so earnestly and relentlessly at his performance at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on July 9.

Morrissey came to fame in the mid-’80s as the lead singer of The Smiths, one of the most influential and beloved British guitar bands of all time. The band broke up three years and four studio albums later, and an acrimonious trial over royalties in the ’90s hammered the last nail in The Smiths’ coffin. In 1988, Morrissey embarked on a solo career. His most recent album, World Peace is None of Your Business, was his 10th studio album as a solo artist.

At promptly 9 p.m., Morrissey took the stage, proving the infamous and occasionally hilarious reports of him cancelling shows are a thing of the past. He rolled straight into “The Queen is Dead,” the first track off the Smiths album of the same name. For “The Queen is Dead,” the background slideshow runs a collage of British royals Will and Kate holding their baby, with the slogan “UNITED KING-DUMB” under each image. Morrissey dropped to his knees and dramatically pointed to the backdrop, in case we, for some reason, had missed the 20-foot image insulting the royal family.

This display kicked off the theme Morrissey hammered home: his politics. Morrissey knows he has to throw in a few Smiths songs, but the ones that pop up in cheesy teen movies he leaves to his old band mate Marr, who performed “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want,” “There is a Light that Never Goes Out,” and “How Soon is Now?” at his Chicago solo show last November. Morrissey, on the other hand, went for the musically inferior but lyrically muscular “The Queen is Dead” and “Meat is Murder” (just imagine Ferris Bueller wandering around the Art Institute singing “And DEATH for no reason is MURDER”). Morrissey’s politics were further supported by the World Peace songs: They featured lyrics like “Each time you vote, you support the process” and “The bullfighter dies and nobody cries/ Because we all want the bull to survive.” His message was clear: Fuck Thatcher, fuck the royals, treat animals as you would want to be treated, and don’t be a racist.

Politics aside, Morrissey is still a musician to be reckoned with. Perhaps owing to his good behavior in the ’80s (as he says in his Autobiography, “I’ve had so little sex and drugs I can’t believe I’m still alive”), the timbre of Morrissey’s voice is still rich, far fuller than what the best production techniques capture on record. After the first wave of punk hit, it became passé for rock stars to sing melodically. But Morrissey, never one for convention, is a fluid singer, even a sweet one. He has maybe a quarter of the range of a more flexible vocalist like Axl Rose or Freddie Mercury (and age is limiting his reach even more), but at the Lyric Opera, Morrissey was nearly pitch-perfect. His baritone was smooth, but he occasionally deployed startling noises (yelps, growls, sighs) as his own form of vocal rebellion.

Over the years, Morrissey has demonstrated an uncanny knack for finding talented musicians to work with. In The Smiths he had Marr; for 1988 debut Viva Hate he recruited cult guitar hero Vini Reilly from The Durutti Column; and guitarist and composer Boz Boorer has been with him since 1991. At the Lyric Opera, Morrissey’s band exhibited a solid musical relationship with him: They carefully adjusted their volume levels to match his dynamic changes, and he allowed them plenty of solo time to blast away. The drummer, Matt Walker (The Smashing Pumpkins, Filter), was a particularly great find: His relaxed, restrained style was a nice fit for Morrissey’s more languid numbers.

The set list at the Lyric Opera was mostly devoted to songs from World Peace. Musically, this was where the band got to prove their chops, as it is their most musically experimental album to date. They did an excellent job of capturing the different sounds on the record—at one point there was a Spanish-style finger-picking guitar solo, and Walker integrated a massive gong into his kit. The band’s Smiths covers sounded fine, if unremarkable; Boorer imitated Marr’s trademark jingle-jangle guitar tone skillfully enough. Yet the musical highlights of the set came from neither World Peace nor The Smiths: They were the shimmering “Alma Matters,” from 1997’s Maladjusted; “First of the Gang to Die,” from 2004 comeback album You Are the Quarry; and ubiquitous second single “Everyday Is Like Sunday” (1998), which induced what was probably the Lyric Opera’s first-ever sing-a-long.

It was a damn tight show, but it wasn’t flawless: Just as Morrissey’s weird sounds stand out, his errors were obvious. He mangled his delivery on one occasion (“Broke my spleen and broke my kneeandthenhereallylaysintome”) and strangled a note on another (“The bullfighter dieEEEs). And in typical Morrissey fashion, the performance ended with an unplanned and evidently unwanted twist. Two adoring fans clambered on to the stage (not in itself an unusual occurrence at a Morrissey concert) during the encore of “What She Said.” Security chased them both down before they could lay a finger on Morrissey, but that was enough to throw him into a huff: Morrissey finished his part, ripped his shirt open, tossed it to the audience, and fled, leaving the band to conclude the performance without him.

But the worst critique usually leveled at Morrissey—that he’s self-righteous—was not borne out by this performance. When backed by a slideshow of facts, Morrissey’s lyrics seem less sanctimonious. During “Meat is Murder,” the slideshow ran bloody, gruesome videos of animals getting their throats slit in slaughterhouses. “Meat is Murder,” then, isn’t Morrissey beating us over the head with a metaphorical stick, shouting about how not consuming meat makes him a superior human. The reality of animal cruelty was staring us in the face, and vegetarianism seemed like an appropriate reaction. The truth validated his lyrical hyperboles.

This is not to say that the constant dramatization of everything was fine; it was emotionally draining. Morrissey cares about many things, and he cares about them all equally intensely. To see Morrissey perform is to be sucked into a world where everything matters all of the time. It was exhausting, and it diluted his message. By the time the encore rolled around, the various miseries Morrissey suffered from blended together.

But the excessiveness was the annoying part, not the opinions themselves: It was refreshing to see a mature pop star with a social conscience. Morrissey’s show was mostly musically sound, but more impressively, it was topical. This is where Morrissey truly diverges from his formerly-of-blank-British-band-now-solo contemporaries. What other 59-year-old white male performer puts up footage of Walter Scott being shot to death while singing about how “police will stun you with their stun guns/ Or they’ll disable you with Tasers”? It’s been 25 years since Morrissey was at the height of his fame with Viva Hate, but there are plenty of British artists considered more relevant than him who would never put Walter Scott in their slideshows.

Pop stars with “nothing to convey”? Not Morrissey; never Morrissey.