Partway through a night that was strictly for the faithful, Steven Patrick Morrissey paused to address his congregation. “Some of us in this business, we don’t want or need silly awards like the BRITs. We just want… you”. While he may appear dismissive towards those who ignore him, tonight was a show of appreciation for the fans who have stuck with him through thick and thin – through all the indie classics, the solo albums of mixed quality and an unerring ability to needlessly swirl a storm of controversy from nowhere. Low In High School, his 11th solo album released at the tail end of last year, received even more mixed reviews than usual – but it was again lapped up by his adoring fans nonetheless.
Tonight at the Brighton Centre felt at times less like a concert, but rather a campaign rally with a fervent partisan atmosphere. With no support band, the slot was replaced once again with a video montage of suitably iconic musical figures from across the ages, there was no deviating from the Cult of Moz. As the man himself arrived on stage there was an electrifying roar from the crowd, met with a nod and a sign of thanks from the stage. Launching into ‘The Last Of The Famous International Playboys’ for the second night in a row after a long live absence, followed soon after by ‘Suedehead’, there was a glimmer of hope that we were in for a ‘greatest hits’ version of an album tour. That was not to be, however. Leaning deep into the crowd to shake hands, Morrissey could quite frankly have played whatever he liked and received the same red hot response.
The night was unequivocally based on Low In High School, with eight tracks dominating the set list. Of course, an album tour is only as good as its parent album – and few would argue in favour of it being amongst Morrissey’s finest work (solo or otherwise). ‘I Wish You Lonely’ and ‘Spent The Day In Bed’ were highlights, both warmly received as tracks that would slot easily into most of his albums. However the likes of ‘I Bury The Living’ did not translate live any better than on record, its ugly message worn openly like a badge of honour. The lyrics to ‘Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up On The Stage’ are perhaps glimpses into Morrissey’s world these days: one popular theory is that he is ‘Jacky’, describing his fear of his audience, “Running to the exit, exit”, though of course it could just as easily signal Brexit, immigration or a host of other subjects that he often speaks about. Or (shock) it could just be a song.
Despite his reputation for stirring the pot of controversy, there was little of that nature on display tonight. A nervous silence descended at one point when he pondered that, “The most radical thing you can do in Britain nowadays is…speak clearly”. Which may be very true, but what wasn’t clear was actually what he meant by saying that – a sly form of a dog whistle perhaps, or maybe just an intro to ‘World Peace Is None Of Your Business’. Who knows? That debate around his intention is of course the desired goal. As the night wore on, there was a slightly anticlimactic feeling – ‘Back On The Chain Gang’ was a fun cover version, but no more than that – disappointing when there are so many classic solo moments to pick from. Meanwhile ‘Who Will Protect Us From The Police?’ was as subtle as a sledgehammer, a track from someone whose cynicism seems to have grown as his worldview has shrunk.
There were unquestionably glimpses of the majesty of old. ‘Home Is A Question Mark’ soared, ‘Hold On To Your Friends’ saw a welcome return, while the sole Smiths track ‘How Soon Is Now?’ is still the holy bible of indie music, tonight complete with flowers tossed from the audience. That one song brought more energy to the venue than the rest of the show combined. Singing: “There’s so much destruction all over the world, and all you can do is complain about me…you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone” on ‘All You Need Is Me’, there is a sense that he knows exactly what he is doing. Yet self-awareness doesn’t make up for all sins. While the hardcore fans will have loved every second and placed it as another reason to idolise him, others will have walked away feeling short-changed by a 90 minute set containing the bare minimum of hits, very little theatre and no support acts. The over-riding thought, however, was just one of mediocrity – it wasn’t an awful show, nor was is it a particularly good one. While Morrissey may enjoy dividing opinions right down the middle wherever he goes, that is the most damning view of all.