Review Summary: "Fame, fame, fatal fame, it can play hideous tricks on the brain."
Some bands capture the zeitgeist. With their self-titled debut album, The Smiths took their place in a long line of legendary UK bands that somehow managed to seize the moment of youth culture (The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Sex Pistols, The Specials, The Jam, The Stone Roses, Oasis, The Libertines, The Arctic Monkeys). Marr's jangling guitar declared war against the contemporary synthesizer sound of New Romantic bands such as Duran Duran and hailed a triumphant throwback to a retro 60s sound. At the same time Morrissey's strident and poetical declarations struck a dagger to the heart of Thatcherite Britain ("I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving: England is mine, it owes me a living" Still Ill
However, their second studio album "Meat is Murder" met with mixed reactions. Marr's now mostly 50s based rockabilly tunes seemed dated and Morrissey's monochromed tales of misery and issue bashing (vegetarianism, the education system, corporal punishment) had them pigeonholed as an awkward indie band not for general public consumption.
It is apparent therefore that their third album "The Queen Is Dead" has a wider agenda: to hit the mainstream. Marr introduces pop tunes into his life with added strings, whilst Morrissey attempts to shed his "miserable" image with the accent on wit and humour in homage to one of his literary heroes Oscar Wilde.
The opener starts off promisingly enough, introduced by an old music hall excerpt of Take Me Back To Dear Old Blightly
followed by a screeching guitar and a cacophony of drums. Over the musical bombast Morrissey equivocates over major issues such as the state of England, royalty and masculinity. But despite all the huffing and puffing, lyrics like "I say (Prince) Charles, don't you ever crave to appear on the front of the Daily Mail dressed in your mother's bridal veil?" don’t really find their target. The song hardly rivals something to rock the establishment like God Save The Queen
by The Sex Pistols. Similar lyrics are found in Vicar in a Tutu
with Morrissey sneering "Vicar in a tutu! He's not strange, he just wants to live his life this way". The camp humour fails to make any cogent commentary on the church, no doubt that wasn't the aim. But the ponderous narrative in fact spoils a great rockabilly tune by Marr. Perhaps it's a matter of taste, but this "Carry On" humour borders on infantile.
Certainly on Cemetry Gates
, Morrissey seems to regress to the mental age of a thirteen year old with his desperate name-dropping ("Keats and Yeats are on your side, but you lose, cos Wilde is on mine") and compounds matters by the blandness of his musings on death (“it seems so unfair, I want to cry”), which is just … awful. If you are going to try to be intellectual, perhaps make a start by learning how to spell “cemetery”. Mind you, this is all that Marr’s stick thin, stop start froth of a tune deserves. Another song where Morrissey and Marr compete in mediocrity is the nadir of the album Never Had No One Ever
, with Marr’s sludgy backdrop as tedious as Morrissey’s ode to the loss of his virginity.
I’m supposed to be reviewing a classic here. This album is regularly cited in those all time best lists. But as well as the two poor songs above, there are numerous average songs. The bland single The Boy With The Thorn In His Side
feels a bit undercooked with its commercial pop sound, whilst the problem with a crass line like “behind the hatred there lies a blundering desire for love” is that it would no doubt be seconded by deluded mothers and battered wives everywhere. Although the teasing closer Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others
could be kindly termed as understated, Morrissey probably should have tried to think of some lyrics, since Marr had gone to the effort of composing the tune. Usually Marr and Morrissey work in unison: if one fails, so does the other. At least, the reggae inflected romp, with its nodding dog of a bass drum, that is Frankly Mr Shankly
fits with the flippancy of its lyrics. “I would rather be famous, than righteous or holy” Morrissey asserts, placing him nicely beside X factor contestants and vacuous pop celebrities everywhere.
Not to say there isn’t brilliance here. I Know It’s Over
is the first incontrovertible stamp of genius, with Morrissey putting in a vocal performance full of pathos and an amazingly memorable line “mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head”. Nor does There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
disappoint, as Marr gets out the violins for his haunting melody to serenade Morrissey, who is at his achingly romantic best (“to die by your side: what a heavenly way to die!”). Bigmouth Strikes Again
is another stand-out, with Morrissey’s sardonic opening statement “sweetness, I was only joking when I said I would like to smash every tooth in your head” meshing beautifully with Marr’s driving acoustic guitar accompaniment. Morrissey suddenly remembers he is a once-in-a-lifetime lyricist, able to evoke a plethora of conflicting images with a throwaway line like “now I know how Joan of Arc felt, as the flames rose to her roman nose, and her walkman started to melt”.
Is this a classic? No way. As with all Morrissey’s work, genius and mediocrity stand side by side; perhaps as a result of the flaws in his personality. Because The Smiths are capable of scaling such heights, critics understandably want to acknowledge this by pointing to one particular album. But The Smiths and Morrissey in particular are a bit like the girl with the curl in the nursery rhyme: when they are good, they are very very good, when they are bad, they are horrid.