We all know someone who cultivates a toxic personality online but is nothing like that in person — a relative, perhaps, or a co-worker, or the former lead singer of the Smiths. Morrissey's trolling behavior is a bit different from your trash-talking cousin's, since he will almost certainly never join Twitter. Instead, he sends his missives out during frustratingly frequent interviews in which the offensive bits are scooped up, aggregated and published on music websites around the world.
In recent years, his viral quotes have included calling the Chinese a "subspecies" (for what he deems inhumane treatment of animals) and defending Kevin Spacey. ("You have to assume that the boy had an inkling of what might possibly happen," he said of one of the actor's accusers.) This steady stream of please-stop-talking-Moz news blurbs has become how most people interact with the British rock icon these days, and it's starting to take a toll. The behavior has prompted some fans to jump ship ("The Cure were always better than the Smiths anyway!") while others have a relationship with the singer that was neatly summed up by satire website the Hard Times with the headline "Fan Brings Earplugs to Morrissey Concert In Case He Talks."
But again, sometimes things play out differently in the real world. On Thursday, at a serviceable and entirely unremarkable concert at the Anthem, the xenophobic troll version of Morrissey was nowhere to be found. The thousands in attendance saw a singer in fine voice who has maintained most of his onstage charisma, even while he has lost his ability to write songs worthy of his own catalogue.
The focus of the 90-minute performance was "Low in High School," an instantly forgettable addition to the Morrissey discography that's heavy-handed lyrically and musically. Songs such as "Home Is a Question Mark" and "Jacky's Only Happy When She's Up on the Stage" deal with themes of identity and sexuality that Morrissey has peerlessly explored over the past 35 years, but they fell flat Thursday mostly because of their extremely basic structures, given an extra plodding treatment by the five-piece backing band (all in T-shirts emblazoned with "Animal Rights Militia").
As the show progressed, the energy in the crowd steadily evaporated. Early on, attendees held up their phones to take photos, but before long people were checking them as if they were waiting for a Metro train to arrive. The buzz-saw guitar of the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?" got people's attention, as did a loyal cover of the Pretenders' "Back on the Chain Gang," but they were outliers. The song selection left much to be desired, and Morrissey's flourishes and surprisingly robust voice couldn't save the material.
The most sustained excitement was during the encore, when the brilliant 1988 single "Suedehead" was followed by the Smiths classic "Shoplifters of the World Unite," reworked to become "Trump-Shifters of the World." The latter was accompanied by a photo of Morrissey holding a baby whose face was more or less that of the president, filling the giant screens behind the stage. An invader from the front row wiggled his way onto the stage, and instead of shooing him away, Morrissey gave him a hearty hug. The song ended with Morrissey ripping off his shirt — Moz remains admirably buff — before departing.
The house lights stayed down for about three minutes as the assembled pleaded for another encore. But then it became bright and a collective groan rolled through the venue. Morrissey had just a hint of troll in him tonight after all.