The linking of Morrissey with Oscar Wilde is one that the former Smiths frontman and now-iconic solo artist has much encouraged, himself. He’s been photographed lounging at that 19th-century decadents’ Parisian grave and, at Thursday’s performance, both the merch table and the video screen above the stage boasted images of the author asking in a speech bubble, “Who’s Morrissey?”
The two are as easy to contrast as they are to compare. Certainly, Wilde was more obviously and publicly indulgent of his celebrity. But there is, nevertheless, an apt association: Wilde reveled in creating paradoxical truisms by twisting common wisdom, even common sense: “True friends stab you in the front,” for example. Or, “There are only two tragedies in life: One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”
Either of those sentiments—or those specific phrases, for that matter—would fit easily in a Morrissey lyric. And when, during his performance of “Let Me Kiss You,” the singer stripped out of his shirt while singing, “Close your eyes and picture someone you physically . . . despise,” to the cheers of his admiring fans, it had the feel of a Wildean irony.
Morrissey’s lyrical misery is a hallmark of his work (it is not by accident that he is referred to as the Pope of Mope); but he should be equally known for his dark wit. How can one not find these lines from “Still Ill” funny: “I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving/England is mine and it owes me a living/But ask me why and I’ll spit in your eye, ask me why and I’ll spit in your eye?” At the Palace, Morrissey pronounced the refrain from the Smiths’ tune, “I’ll shhhh-pit in your eye,” as if to drive home the exaggerated petulance of the line.
Or, that’s how I took it, anyway. Morrissey’s no parody act—that he can be in earnest was evidenced by the grisly footage of industrial farming shown during the Smiths’ “Meat Is Murder.” Nevertheless, I found his introductory comment, “Did you know President Obama eats lamb? Lambs are someone’s babies. President Obama eats babies,” very, very funny.
Perhaps it is this very dynamic—the inability of even a fan to truly accept, whole-cloth, the intent of the artist—that triggers a protective or compensatory irony. There’s a pointlessness, a futility that Morrissey seems both to embrace and express. And, of course, it must be noted that his voice is an absolutely perfect instrument for doing so. It’s a little raspier than once, not quite as glossy. But Morrissey’s timbre is the very medium of maudlin delight.
Morrissey has always had the sense to surround himself with top-notch musicians, whose playing adds odd angles and juxtapositions to his croon. On Thursday, he was more than ably served by his band, including long-time collaborator, guitarist Boz Bohrer. (Bohrer wore a T-shirt emblazoned Killjoy. The other band members were labeled, Action, Bully, Mugger and Attack. How is this not silly?)
The set was primarily drawn from Morrissey’s solo years, but included a handful of Smiths favorites, including the opener, “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” and the magnificent closer, “How Soon Is Now.”
It’s hard to argue that Morrissey does not mean that he is the “son and heir of absolutely nothing.” But it was damn near impossible to mope through that glorious rendition. And as a famous decadent author once wrote, “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”