At 56, Morrissey is singing better than ever. His New York concert, however mostly was a drag.
"It is a great privilege to be back here in the center of the world with you", Morrissey proclaimed during his June 27 Madison Square Garden concert. The singer flattered New Yorkers, but he only intermittently entertained us during a one hour and 45-minute set drawn mostly from his post-Smiths solo career.
Opening promisingly with a strong "The Queen Is Dead", he perversely overlooked much of his best work, both with his original band and his solo career, in favor of lesser-known numbers of varying quality, as well as five from his latest, and underwhelming album, World Peace Is None of Your Business.
Morrissey's had a difficult time of late, canceling tours because of illness – in 2014, he announced that he'd been treated for an unspecified cancer – and being dropped by his record label. Reviews for World Peace, his tenth solo album, generally were decent but not especially enthusiastic, and, although it entered UK and US pop charts at respectably high numbers (#14 on Billboard, #2 in Britain), sales have been weak. (In fairness to Morrissey, his label, Harvest, didn't do a great job of marketing and promoting the record.) So, he did have some things to prove at Madison Square Garden, where he last played 25 years ago. Did he still have the goods as a performer, and could he still fill a major venue?
Morrissey didn't sell out the Garden, but the venue was mostly full. He still has a devoted fan base diverse in age, nationality, and sexuality, and, at 56, he's singing better than ever, with more power and greater technique than in his youth. He also was in good spirits, alluding to the week's Supreme Court same-sex marriage ruling: "It's an historic week in the United States. Good times for a change".
You would think, though, that someone who has been performing as long as Morrissey has would know how to pace a show. At the Garden, the many slow and mid-tempo numbers tended to bleed into each other, inducing tedium. An audience that had been fired up when the show started became progressively less enthusiastic as the set wore on. Morrissey could have mixed well-known and much-loved songs, from the Smiths' and his solo catalog, with the newer and less familiar tracks. Since he has yet to find a melodist as good as his old Smiths compere Johnny Marr, we heard too many plodding tuneless ones.
(These days, if you want to hear Smiths classics, you're better off with Marr, who peppers his sets with them. At a New York show earlier this year, he and his excellent band played six, including a "How Soon Is Now?" that brought the house down.)
The show did surprise by being intensely political; from the pre-set video projections to the song selections and the videos that accompanied them, Morrissey pulled no punches when it came to his views. Before he and the band appeared, a video montage featured early '60s homoerotic iconography (pretty, butch boxers), scenes from the 1977 miners' strike in Britain, Morrissey's "tribute" to a certain deceased female prime minister ("Margaret Thatcher is dead -- LOL"), concluding with the great drag artist Lypsinka miming to a woman's screams.
The videos during the show, though, were disturbing -- scenes of horrific police violence against people and animals for "Ganglord" and later, a compilation of slaughterhouse scenes for "Meat Is Murder". The images in the latter video were so ghastly that audience members looked away, stared intently at their phones, or left the room (perhaps to buy one of the vegan snacks sold by the Garden's concessions that night, at Morrissey's request). After four-minutes-plus of animals being stunned, slashed, and hacked to pieces, the video concluded with a challenge: "Now that you know, what's your excuse?"
Morrissey's commitment to veganism and animal rights is admirable, but the anti-meat video pretty much killed the show, even though there were a few more numbers to come. That, and the fact that "Meat Is Murder" is a lousy song, one of the worst in the Smiths' repertoire, a droning dirge that defeats its own purpose by being so unlistenable.
The show ended with "Now My Heart Is Full", from the album Vauxhall and I . Morrissey sang it with full-throated passion, and at the end, he ripped off his shirt and tossed it into the crowd. (His middle-aged torso is buff, but appears to be devoid of the hair he once proudly displayed.) A nice moment, but it couldn't lift the pall that descended with "Meat Is Murder".
For sheer pleasure, though, you couldn't beat the opening act, Blondie. Their too-short set was all hits, and the band delivered them with power and precision, driven by one of the greatest drummers in the history of rock, Clem Burke. Debbie Harry, a bit more zaftig than in years past, was in excellent voice, and she plainly was having a great time. Her song intros often were delightful – setting up one of the band's biggest hits, she said, "If tomorrow you don't know how to find the Pride parade, just … call me!" The set's closer was a joyous "The Tide Is High", the reggae number by the Paragons that Blondie covered in 1980, with a brass band joining the sextet and Harry draped in a rainbow flag.
The punk icon, who turns 70 this year, could teach the headliner a lot, especially how to make your worldview and aesthetic entertaining, instead of off-putting.