The Initial Position
Actually, there is really no good reason why I never took the time to fully get into the music of The Smiths before. I do enjoy the gloom and the sentimental weltschmerz which I immediately associate with popular songs like Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want or There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. Plus, the iconic aura that surrounds the group from Manchester, also prompted by their short-lived existence and only four studio albums to show off, has always puzzled me, without any specific reason to point to. And yet, something about the 80s legends never really clicked with me. Well, Morrissey‘s offensive political posturing didn’t exactly draw me toward his early work either. But then again, these are basically the pioneers of what we call Brit-Pop today, so I might as well take a stab at it for good.
Getting started with ‘The Smiths’ (1984)
As Reel Around The Fountain, the beginning track of the debut record, gently ripples out of my speakers, I must say I do like the vibe of it. There is something about the jangling guitars and the steady bass line that resonates with me. I realise though, that you have to really dig the vibe Morrissey‘s voice is spreading and I find myself wondering if it isn’t a touch to whiny for my taste. Miserable Lie kicks in, a tune in which nothing seems to fit together, and the falsetto part is driving me up the walls. I wonder if this is going to be tougher than I thought it would. This is actually not how I had The Smiths in mind. Apart from that irritation there is something very familiar that the songs share. Often rooted in a vivid front of guitars and the rhythm section of bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, I would position the sound somewhere between the pensive and the playful. The vocals may expose feelings of anguish and lack of orientation and yet, the atmosphere still has something enchanting to it. And if only in a very romanticised perspective.
When the guitars and the bass intro to This Charming Man kick in, it strikes me how much I love that song, probably more than any other tune from that era. It does have something very untypical for the fellows around Morrissey and Johnny Marr in that it is far more upbeat and danceable, almost enthusiastic. A quality that is somehow unique – well at least for this record, in my opinion. In terms of forceful rock music, only What Difference Does It Make comes close to creating that energy. Well, if it wasn’t for those occurances of Morrissey‘s falsetto parts, which I just will not warm up to, not today. Another thing I note is how random the melodies sound at times, but I guess that just aligns well with the overall, post-punk spirit that I have troubles with for now. It might just take a while to get used to that. As I remain a bit divided about the first impression, Suffer Little Children soothes me with a mellow fade-out to the record. This is a sound I palette I could get used to in the course of the experience. Let’s see about that.
‘Over the moor, take me to the moor
Dig a shallow grave
And I’ll lay me down’
‘Meat Is Murder’: All about the politics?
The political side of the second Smiths record, released only one year after their debut, doesn’t just stop at the photograph of a Vietnam soldier on the album’s sleeve. Meat Is Murder reads the inscription on his helmet, which replaced the original “Make Love Not War” of the original 1967 shot, I learn. And vegetarianism is a strong thematic backdrop to the album, although not in any conceptual way. But I’ll get to that. As The Headmaster Ritual and Rusholme Ruffians are rolling through, I realise that I’m beginning to adjust to the overall vibe. The sound is still focussed on the guitar and bass tandem. On Meat Is Murder there is more experimental twist though. There are more funky elements and I really like that. I Want The One I Can’t Have for instance takes Morrissey‘s sentimental vocals and spices them up with bouncy guitar riffs and builds a nice balance in between these counterparts.
It might just be the increased dosage of exposure, but I feel that the vocal wanderings of Morrissey are more framed into the musical act as a whole, compared to the songs on the first LP. A definite highlight here is That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore, in my opinion a wholly underrated masterpiece in the bands œuvre. In itself somehow classically introduced by subtle acoustic guitars, it exhibits how emotional tension meets a crafted pop sound, with the anguished passion of it piercing through it all. „I’ve seen this happen in other people’s live / And now it’s happening in mine“, the voice is calling out for about two entire minutes of the tune, and none of it is too much. Well I Wonder brings back a mellow subtlety, which then collapses with the final Meat Is Murder. It has something very gloomy about it, and to be fair, it is not one of my favourite songs off the record. This is largely due to the almost narcotic quality of the tune. Gone seems to be the more vivid side of The Smiths, which pulled me closer to them for some moments. But this is more of a sermon than artistic songwriting: The words „and death for no reason is murder“ ring through the entire piece, accompanied by sounds of mooing cows. This is art that has an agenda behind it, after all. However, the ending is somehow fitting to the record as a whole and really leaves me wanting more for now.
At the peak of fame: ‘The Queen Is Dead’ (1986)
It does not surprise me at all, that this third record saw The Smiths at the top of their game. Fully embracing their anarchic attitude, especially on the title track The Queen Is Dead, a guitar-laden torrent of a song, this album assembles some astonishing pieces which display new lyrical and musical heights. Also, it is full of emotional density. They might have just won me over with this one. I admit, I still have a hard time when Morrissey lets his vocals go all unleashed like in I Know It’s Over. This is a tune which really appeals to my taste in general. Beginning with sweet melancholic vibe and subtle acoustic instrumentation, the piece is then pushed onto another level and that’s where the trouble begins for me. I can relate to the overall sentiment of the song, although a little less vocal dramatisation would have done it for me as well. A highlight in any case is Bigmouth Strikes Again, the more classic guitar ballads of The Smiths seem to fall more into my liking anyway. What I find impressing is how the poetic gloom, that almost all of their lyrics carry, is paired with an instrumentation that is often lighthearted, at times even cheerful. The Boy With A Thorn In His Side also is a pleasing exhibit of that.
Probably the most long-lived piece of theirs, There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, is just monumental. It ranks along with This Charming Man and That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore as one of the pieces I hold most dear after these days. An unagitated guitar and rhythm base grounds the vocal performance on a musical level. Lyrically, the song comprises the whole universe of a young romantic outcast nearing the threshold of the 21st century. Melting together teenage angst, youthful hedonism, separation from your parents’ home, unrequited love, a resulting death wish and the hope of salvation into one piece of music, this one embraces the romantic self-image Morrissey himself liked to present to the world. You really have to dig the melancholy here, but once you do, the romantic spirit of it becomes real precious. Well, I did appreciate the tune before, but getting to closer to the song in a more committed way opened my eyes even a bit more for the beauty of it. I’ll just stop myself on this high note right here.
‘Live is very long when you’re lonely’
The last strike: Strangeways, Here I Come (1987)
Recorded just shortly before their demise in the same year, the fourth and final album of The Smiths, for reasons I’m not quite sure of, does not touch the same nerve like its predecessor did for me. More lush and complex in its production – especially some sax elements and string arrangements strike me as a novum here – the songs here are certainly strong, more refined and even more subtle, and yet do no click on the first listen, like some on The Queen Is Dead did. A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours starts off with swaying keyboard elements and is fairly upbeat, in an almost jaunty manner. The next track, I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish, is more to my liking. Driven by distorted guitars and a strong fundament of drums and base, especially the sax elements make this one quite enjoyable.
One thing that stands out for me in Strangeways, Here We Come is how the more calm songs like Death Of A Disco Dancer or I Won’t Share You still lure me into a realm, in which I feel quite comfortable. Especially the latter one, the last track of the album, develops a mellow feel and has something very tranquil about it. ‘Life tends to come and go / That’s okay’, the voice ensures us throughout the song. This does have a different sentimental touch, compared to lyrics on the previous output. Death Of A Disco Dancer in a similar manner displays a harmonic, yet sombre, atmosphere and features a considerable build-up towards its finish, with a frenzied piano and guitar solo outro to end the fun. The more refined sound level that The Smiths reach here, for me probably reaches its peak with Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me. Initiated by a quite extended, almost two-minute piano intro, this one exhibits a serene, even graceful sonic palette that thrives on the dramatic virtue as well as the sensitive feel of the tune. Ultimately, the songs on The Smiths‘ final record might not have won me over for good, but there are some gems on here, which I will hold dear, even after the listening experience.
As I make up my mind on how to wrap up this piece, I give the only live album Rank a spin, as I didn’t get to that before. Released in 1988, it dropped just after the band fell apart. May the impression rule in favour of the verdict. After this week of getting to know The Smiths on a daily basis, I may not have become a total fan (not that I would have expected that) but I did have some good moments while being at it. These brighter phases certainly outweigh the instances of irritation – which also were part of the journey without question. It did take a little patience to get into the sound as a whole – especially the first record didn’t click instantly with me – but the farther I got, the more I could relate to the music.
Especially the pieces that went right down to exploit the sorrows, concerns and despairs of a young generation The Smiths themselves belonged to at the time, left quite a mark on me. Even listening to this after all these years, I have the impression, that one still can relate to all that. Well, there might be a sense of nostalgia involved here, me idealising a fixed period in the past, a mechanism which may be not completely lost on me. For now, I guess I need to take some distance from The Smiths, at least for a few days and see how they will grow on me and if some songs stand the test of time. What the journey has already achieved is, that I remain hungry for more musical input of the particular period I was looking into. And I might just go into that sooner than I thought.
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