"Does anyone know this song? Does anyone like this song? Do I like this song?"
NO GLADIOLAS? The net result was hookless glam-garage accompanied by select, detached-sounding Mozologues.
Morrissey specializes in decadent enlargements of contrary emotions: he's got despair on lock, he's an excellent sculptor of ennui, he's increasingly facile with rage, and he harbors bitterness with the same protective sweetness that he so easily abandons when submitting to the ecstatic plight of his own desires — whatever those might be. Although he is often ambiguous, Morrissey is seldom ambivalent — so it was the first in a line of bummers to behold him interrupting his own song ("Best Friend on the Payroll," off Southpaw Grammar) to encourage a swelling vibe of doubt and impatience that seemed to limit the capacity crowd's response throughout his House of Blues set to a dull roar.
Should I preface this by admitting that I haven't seen the Mozzer perform since '92? I probably should. When last I saw him, I could hardly see him: I was caught in a two-hour crush of shrieking unpopular kids smothering one another and flinging already smashed bouquets of gladiolas at his feet. Hundreds of us strewed ourselves across the Brandeis University lawn for 10 hours before the doors to the Gosman Center even opened, doing the Morrissey chant (i.e., "Mor-ris-sey" sung to "Stars and Stripes Forever" or "Here We Go," depending on which side of the Pond you were raised), and vandalizing his tour bus with love letters in magic marker (statute of limitations in effect, I hope).
Sunday night was . . . different. The only things getting smothered were the remaining embers of my youth. (Hey, Moz isn't the only one with a flair for the drama!) It wasn't so much that he seemed old; we did. Not one person was thrown out for leaping the barriers to touch him. I saw only, like, six homage pompadours. And when Moz emerged, after a quick backstage shirt change, in a crisp, white Oxford to sing "Let Me Kiss You" (from 2004's You Are the Quarry) only to slip it off, blot his sweaty spots with it, and hurl it into the crowd, it didn't even get torn to tatters.
Much like his songs of the past eight or so years, his live shows seldom differ in their general aspect. He invokes his muses through extended visual warm-ups — this time a montage of archival footage of Shocking Blue, the New York Dolls, and the exquisite schnozz of the long-forgotten Jobraith. He lets aphorisms float over the crowd like released balloons: "You are standing in the House of Blues — by all means make use of that fact." He offhandedly subs in new lyrical bits while growling the tail ends of others. He strolls, he shimmies, he withdraws and lurches in a kind of swirling gallop (let's just call it oscillating wildly), and he draws randomly from his and the Smiths' catalogues. This evening's back-catalogue selections were diverse: a promising opening duo of "This Charming Man" and Vauxhall and I's "Billy Budd," the lilting oasis of Your Arsenal's "Seasick Yet Still Docked," twangy "Sing Your Life" B-side "The Loop" (which foreshadowed his still-present rockabilly streak), and a climactic, fully extended run-through of latter-day Smithian swan song "Death of a Disco Dancer," which ended in a rumbling wash of drummer Matt Walker's unlikely gong. But the set relied far too heavily on his latest, Years of Refusal (Lost Highway).
Years has earned oodles of fanfare as a "return to form" by people who seem to have forgotten that Morrissey's best (and most noticeably abandoned) talent was going from one form to the next, without ever becoming less . . . Morrissey about it. As such, the ballsy approach of his band laid too even a texture for Moz to play with, and this even sonic keel belies the ups and downs of his material. Not all of the tunes fell limp. It's hard for any long-time Moz fan not to engage with the questionable finality of "I'm OK by Myself." And both "Something Is Squeezing My Skull" and "Mama Lay Softly on the Riverbed" had fresh moments. But the net result was a show that felt like hookless glam garage accompanied by select, detached-sounding Mozologues.
When, after a single encore that didn't feel like half an encore (even though "The First of the Gang To Die" is one of his greatest recent cuts), the band flung their sticks and picks, the lights swept on, and Sinatra's raspy croon pealed "That's Life" over our collective realization that it was all over, we had only to accept it and rush the coat check. I liked it better when leaving a Morrissey show meant feeling as glimmeringly miserable as he was — but never as bored.