Review Summary: Hey, this new Smiths album is really good!
You might have missed it, but back in 2008, each member of Sputnik's staff was allowed to write their own full-length feature looking back over the year - I made Northern Portrait's The Fallen Aristocracy
my EP of the year, and I know I wasn't the only one out there. It was clearly derivative of The Smiths, but most debut EPs rip something off, and there was more than enough there to suggest that they'd only get better with time. In the insidiously catchy "Crazy", they'd already written their first cult classic, too.
The bad news about Criminal Art Lovers
is that it arguably sounds even more like The Smiths than the EPs did, and it's tempting to sarcastically review the album while pretending it's the follow-up to Strangeways, Here We Come
. The good news, however, is that it's as good as that album, as good as Hatful of Hollow
, and better than either of Meat is Murder
or The Smiths
. Be cynical if you want, but the songwriting here is just too good to ignore.
In an odd way, the album's main strength might be just how much Northern Portrait's frontman, Stefan Larsen, has learned from Morrissey - because unlike any other number of chancers over the years, he seems to get inside the songs, understanding exactly why and how they work. Most of Morrissey's finest tricks are repeated here in Larsen's own words; there are random outbursts of self-defensive violence (compare 'I'll slit the throat/Of anyone who tries to put me down' to 'Why do I give valuable time/To people I'd much rather kick in the eye' or 'Behind the hatred there lies a murderous desire'), and Larsen has also learnt how to build up a pretty narrative and then cut it down to size with one line of 'Caligula wuld have blushed'-style flippancy (see "That's When My Headaches Begin"). It's almost tempting to wonder whether he learned how to speak English by listening to Morrissey sing - the only thing holding back that idea is the belief that he's absorbed Morrissey's influences too. It might be the weakest lyric on the entire album, but there's something a little Wilde-esque about the way he flamboyantly announces 'I'm gay' at the start of "When Goodness Falls", only to retract it with a knowing 'in the old-fashioned way'.
The band, meanwhile, try to maintain a balancing act between the jangling of Marr and something their own. They just about pull it off - these songs are generally more muscular than your average Smiths track, nodding instead to recent Belle & Sebastian material. Certainly, no Smiths tracks ever had a snare drum as hard or snappy as the one in "When Goodness Falls" or the brilliantly-titled "The Munchhausen in Me".
If you value originality above all else, this album is not for you, but if you can get past the sound and hear the songs, you'll find a lot to love here.