Big Mouth strikes again

Despite his offstage outbursts, Morrissey still commands a devoted audience

Camden Roundhouse, London NW1

Just before his new Greatest Hits album gets released, the former Smiths singer Morrissey is exactly where he wants to be: in the press, in the blogs, and mired in controversy. The madness, this time around, began last November. Fifteen years after the NME chastised him for waving the Union Jack at a gig in Finsbury Park, it printed an interview in which this son of Irish immigrants, who had spent the past decade living in Los Angeles and Rome, said: "The gates of England are flooded. The country's been thrown away." Subsequently, amid legal threats from the singer, Morrissey also said that he abhorred racism, but he never clarified his comments on immigration. Having spun a web of mystery around his sexuality and political beliefs for the past 25 years, he shows no sign of stopping.

Only the anti-racism activists gathered in the Roundhouse foyer, evidently green-lit by management, suggested a stand on that subject, and his inclusion of the controversial, if misunderstood, "National Front Disco" came over like an act of defiance. There is a childish aspect to that song's performance, especially so here when he raved "England is for the English!" in front of a stage set comprising three brooding portraits of the very Welsh Richard Burton.

There's something inherently ridiculous about Morrissey in general. I say this as a fan of his music, if not of his outbursts. As a teenager, I spent days dreaming about his melancholy, wit and fabulous quiff. But from the moment he strode on to the stage in a stripy football-manager tie, shouting, "Good evening, West Ham," to the moment he flung it away and stripped off his shirt in an encore, revealing a paunch bolstered by the rigours of Italian living, he camped it up like an embittered dandy. He acknowledged this daftness, offering such waspish lines to the crowd as "Can you bear another new one?" or, when the volume of applause dipped slightly, "Don't be obliged." He was held back only by his vanity, often stopping in the middle of a well-crafted soubriquet to lap up another proclamation of love from the audience.

But Morrissey knows what his fans want: a memory of the skinny, gladiolus-waving 24-year-old who revolutionised pop in the Eighties. This was best proved as the set opened with "How Soon Is Now?", the Smiths' most electrifying hit - it was passionate and utterly thrilling. Three other Smiths songs popped up, too: a brooding "Death of a Disco Dancer", complete with lightshow and gong, "Stretch Out and Wait" and the spry, thoughtful pop of "Stop Me if You Think You've Heard This One Before". These songs exude a sense of danger and drama that is missing from the later work.

Morrissey's more recent songs play on mortality and maturity, but more often with a whimper than a bang. The hugely indulgent "Life Is a Pigsty" is a good example, and on this night as he wailed, "Can you stop the pain?/I feel too cold and now I feel too warm again," he threw himself effetely to the floor.

Much better was a song he claims "nobody likes", 1994's "Why Don't You Find Out for Yourself". Soft guitars and lyrics about "glass hidden in the grass" make the spine tingle much more affectingly than overblown pomp. The album it comes from, Vauxhall and I, remains his best solo effort, teeming with the sort of bruised nostalgia that Richard Hawley plies these days. Sadly, the modern Morrissey is all about bluster.

Morrissey wants to be preserved in aspic, like his many dead heroes. That's why he sings, "You're going to miss me when I'm gone" with such terrifying relish. And his fans obviously will. A mussy-haired man who sneaked on to the stage expressed this emotion best, hugging the singer tightly and laying his head on his hero's broad shoulder. He must have been at least 35. Morrissey tried to look aggrieved, but a smirk played softly across those sour lips.

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This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God