Review Summary: Morrissey's love letter to Johnny Marr.
You know how it is. There you are with the girl of your dreams and if you were any happier, you would die. Which is exactly what it feels like when she turns round and announces that it isn't working. The most precious girl in the world and she's slipping through your hands. And there's nothing you can do about it.
That's what this album feels like. And the girl in question is the band's lead guitarist and co-songwriter, Johnny Marr.
Let's rewind five years previous to 1982. There we see Morrissey still living with his mother in a Manchester suburb, penning unread fanzines about James Dean and The New York Dolls, going nowhere and going there fast. Until the day Marr knocks on his door with guitar and a clutch of lyric free songs in hand.
The truth is without Marr, The Smiths would have been a wacky sideshow, the irrelevant ramblings of Morrissey the misfit. Marr not only provided the music, but a kind of Keith Richards cool: all earrings and eyeliner, cigarettes and Jack Daniels, that gave social credence to the most unlikely of bands that somehow nearly took the world by storm.
But during the recording of this, their fourth and last studio album, as they stood on the verge of finally cracking America, building on the massive critical and commercial success of "The Queen Is Dead", suddenly everything fell apart. Marr walked out on the band even before the recording had been finalised (leaving Morrissey and Stephen Street the producer to finish off some of the songs) and this album, instead of being a final triumphant success, was actually released posthumously to a muted reaction.
Of course, in hindsight, the split is obvious. What is particularly noticeable is that nearly every song on this album is about saying goodbye, about the end of a love affair or about the death of that lover. The first side is full of violent imagery, the sublimation of Morrissey's impotent rage, the externalisation of his emotional wreckage: songs about bloody revolution (A Rush and A Push
); about murder at a disco (Death of A Disco Dancer
); about a loved one being at death's door (Girlfriend In A Coma
); about "shy, bald buddhists reflecting on mass murder" (Stop Me
); about testicles literally being squeezed ("he grabbed me by the gilded beans, aarrgh!" - I Started Something
Perhaps fuelled by their imminent demise, the songs here are among the best that The Smiths have ever produced. Take Girlfriend In A Coma
. Over a deceptively catchy melody, Morrissey vacillates ironically between love and hate ("you know, I could have murdered her, but, you know, I would hate anything to happen to her") in a way that has never been done in the whole canon of pop music, leaving songwriters everywhere scratching their heads at such brilliant simplicity.
The second side sees Morrissey getting much more personal, an internalisation rather than externalisation of his rage. Having previously announced himself as celibate and asexual, the heartbreaking ballad (with an admittedly overfussy intro) Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me
sees Morrissey close to coming out of the closet. But who broke his dream, who is the somebody who could have loved him?
Certainly, the other songs on this side of the album seem to have Marr as their target. The immature lyrics of Unhappy Birthday
can only be excused by being pointedly personal: "I've come to wish you an unhappy birthday because you're evil and you lie/and if you should die/I may be slightly sad but I won't cry". The rather laboured Paint A Vulgar Picture
lambasts not just Marr, but the whole music industry. But it is the final song, the beautiful ballad I Won't Share You
, where Morrissey finally stops swinging punches and accepts it's all over. With his guitarist now departed, Morrissey croons with the defiance of a defeated lover to an empty recording studio: "I won't share you, with the drive and ambition, the zeal I feel, this is MY time."
Of course, it wasn't really Morrissey's time, it was the beginning of the end of his time. Marr went on to cavort with all sorts of glamourous luminaries of the music industry including Talking Heads, Bryan Ferry, The Pretenders, The The, New Order, The Pet Shop Boys, Billy Bragg, Oasis, Pearl Jam, Modest Mouse, Girls Aloud, John Frusciante, The Cribs, et al. Morrissey went on to a solo career that constantly raged against the dying light on ever smaller record labels.
Despite popular opinion, both Morrissey and Marr claim that this is The Smiths' best album, with at least six classic songs (but somewhat let down by an inferior second side and some overproduction issues), as the former sardonically confirms:
"We say it quite often; at the same time; in our sleep ... but in different beds."