“Don’t they know, it’s the end of the world, it happened when you said… COUGH!”
With a comedy a capella snippet of Skeeter Davis’s 1962 crooner classic ‘The End Of The World’ and a trademark flick of his microphone lead, Morrissey summons up the rockabilly thunder of The Smiths’ ‘London’, its key line “do you think you’ve made the right decision this time?” hanging like diseased droplets in the air. The stage is lined with pictures of Moz in a medical mask beneath the legend ‘You Are The Quarantined’. And thus, one of the last major gig in the UK for the foreseeable future kicks off, consequences be damned.
Morrissey, more than most, might have cause to worry about exposing his audience to potentially fatal viruses. They’re a limited resource. You need a significant degree of blind dedication – or, heaven forbid, to actually agree with him – to even set foot through the door these days. But as the Moz army throws off a lifetime of social distancing at the worst possible moment and crushes to the front chanting his name, a sense of fanatical fatalism hangs heavy. “If you’re gonna kill yourself, well for god’s sake just kill yourself,” Moz wails amid the spectacular torrent of new song ‘Jim Jim Falls’, a prime example of his euphoric misanthropy taken to its logical extreme. It feels, as the faithful bounce along, like he’s about to uncork the Kool-Aid.
At the very least, he’s purifying the cult to only the most diehard devoted. The casual Moz fan has got a long wait for ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ tonight. To fully appreciate this set you’ll not only have to have taken a solid interest in last year’s covers album ‘California Son’, but also be extensively acquainted with 30-odd years of obscure b-sides. You’ll have to adore the last three albums – starting with 2017’s ‘Low In High School’ – more than any he put out in the ‘80s or ‘90s. And forget just knowing all of his albums inside out; you need to be able to lecture a course in the deluxe edition bonus tracks.
It’s a deep dive as crowd-pleasing as sitting onstage burning spare toilet rolls, and its message seems to be that you’re either with Morrissey or you’re due for a purge.
The effect, though, is to highlight just how rich Morrissey’s catalogue really is. Of tonight many ultra-obscurities, only ‘Low In High School’ bonus track ‘Never Again Will I Be A Twin’ plods and drags like an off-cut should. The rest are delivered with all the grace and power of far more celebrated hits. Mediocre 1988 rarity ‘At Amber’ becomes an emphatic, dynamic beast, B-side ‘If You Don’t Like Me, Don’t Look At Me’ billows beautifully and ‘Munich Air Disaster 1958’ unfurls as a true lost classic rescued from the ‘You Are The Quarry’ deluxe edition. A sophisticated, sweeping tribute to Matt Busby’s tragic Manchester United team, it hints at the elegance of ‘I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday’ or ‘There Is A Light…’.
Talking of great lost torch songs: ‘I’ve Changed My Plea To Guilty’, having languished for decades at the back of ‘Viva Hate’’s sock drawer, is polished up like a mirrorball and given its show-stopping moment to shine, married to its modern equivalent ‘Home Is A Question Mark’, as if to prove that Moz does indeed still make them like he used to. Mid-league singles such as ‘World Peace Is None Of Your Business’ get rejuvenated by volcanic feedback solos from guitarist Jesse Tobias, and the covers range from jubilant ‘60s pop (‘Lady Willpower’) to funereal mariachi soul (‘Some Say (I Got Devil)’, a sly comment on his divisive reputation). Yet he owns every one. It’s like watching a team full of gifted substitutes lift the World Cup.
Morrissey, for his part, saunters unapologetically through all of this career flotsam with one hand in his pocket, blazer lapels occasionally raised, as if practicing Rat Pack poses for his Vegas residency. He signs a CD flung onstage – the closest his fans can get to a stage invasion in the age of corona – and drops faux-modest self-deprecations that suggest a shared sympathy for his victimhood.
As a sop to the Smithsonians he shuffles through a sublime ‘Half A Person’, but for the most part we feel as though we’re waiting dutifully upon his indulgences. Though no liberal attitudes are harmed during the making of this show, icon worship has been replaced by the sort of wary fondness you’d have for an opinionated grandparent.
Still, he’s comfortable in his rarefied niche, with his people. Other than the bits of ‘Once I Saw The River Clean’ that sound like Jean Michel Jarre doing a Duran Duran song, you’d never know he was about to release an album that marks a dramatic swerve into experimental synth rock and electronica – they’ll find that out in their own time. Right now he’s just happy in the knowledge that he still has the power to stun and seduce with an arena set in which ‘I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris’ could be considered one of the biggest hits.
As the stage is obliterated by dry ice for a heart-bursting final ‘Jack The Ripper’, Morrissey’s house is cleaned, the disciples re-affirmed, the compound gates shut. Welcome to the lockdown.
‘The End of the World’
‘I Wish You Lonely’
‘Jim Jim Falls’
‘Satan Rejected My Soul’
‘Once I Saw the River Clean’
‘Half a Person’
‘If You Don’t Like Me, Don’t Look at Me’
‘Munich Air Disaster 1958’
‘World Peace Is None of Your Business’
‘Seasick, Yet Still Docked’
‘I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris’
‘Love Is on Its Way Out’
‘Back on the Chain Gang’
‘I’ve Changed My Plea to Guilty’
‘Home Is a Question Mark’
‘Never Again Will I Be a Twin’
‘Some Say (I Got Devil)’
‘Wedding Bell Blues’
‘Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on the Stage’
‘Irish Blood, English Heart’
‘Jack the Ripper’