Review Summary: “Oh, has the world changed, or have I changed?”The Queen Is Dead
was The Smiths leaping to a whole other level on the scale of pop perfection. It’s often cited as the finest Smiths LP, and while it’s certainly rivalled in their discography, it’s hard not to be impressed by the 10 stunning tracks making up the group’s 3rd proper album.
It opens to a barnstorming title-track, where thuddering drums kick in after a chorus of “take me back to dear old Blighty”. The patriotic English anthem sampled at the start serves to contrast Morrissey’s astounding lyrics right from his first proper line - “farewell to this land’s cheerless marshes…”. Here, he is scathing, not just about himself like in the past, but about the whole of British society in general, with Her Majesty caught in the iron sights, serving as a jumping off point for numerous topics for a riled Mozza to attack. The churches, pubs and monarchy of the rainy isle take a bashing, with a haze of oftentimes funny, oftentimes bizarre, but always bitter lines, each showing off a maturing poet’s skill. “I say Charles don’t you ever crave / to appear on the front of the daily mail / dressed in your mother’s bridal vial” is but one humorous highlight from this superb opener.
As unconventional openers go, ‘The Queen Is Dead’ couldn’t be more surprising and thrilling, and from thereon in things turn from the unexpected to the unexpected. The dynamic set takes in jaunty pop, such as ‘Frankly, Mr Shankly’, ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’ and ‘Cemetery Gates’; faux-rockabilly on ‘Vicar In A Tutu’; snarled alt-rock with ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ and ‘The Queen Is Dead’; plus epic ballads on ‘I Know It’s Over’ and ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’. Few albums feature as many consistent and varied classics as this stunning disc.
It’s not just his country that Morrissey takes concern with, but also himself. On the subtly aggressive “Bigmouth Strikes Again”, Joan of Arc’s melting hearing aid serves as a clever link to Morrissey himself – the apparatus having been worn in some of his early live appearances. ‘Cemetery Gates’ also castigates its author, with what musically sounds very jovial and poppy, contrasting with subtly bitter lyrics regarding plagiarism, and the big-noses who love to “trip you and laugh when you fall” when it comes to analysing literary originality. Rarely had the front-man been so post-modern and self-analysing prior to this album.
What makes things even more exciting is the knowledge that the more personal, sombre side of Morrissey’s writing isn’t forgotten, with one of his finest tales of angst appearing with ‘I Know It’s Over’. The starkest tune on offer in an album that generally has a ‘full’ production, ‘I Know It’s Over’ is a heart wrenching and beautiful song on defeat at the hands of a failed love. Morrissey’s vocals are perfect, sounding his most naked, honest and fragile in a long while, and his words even more magic. He once again rips open his own character flaws (“and if you’re so funny, then why are you on your own tonight…”), and mourns over a love that “never really began” but was nevertheless “so real” in heart. His bellowing, desperate cries of “mother I can feel the soil falling over my head” towards the end of the number is a true hairs on the back of the neck standing on end moment. Unforgettable.
The richer production is perhaps best shown off in what has to be one of the most stunning Smiths tracks ever recorded, ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’. While the band is quite low key and supporting, Marr’s orchestral arrangement is the blissful edge here – perfectly matched to a deceptively simple but thoroughly spellbinding Morrissey lyric. “And if a double-decker bus / crashes into us / to die by your side / is such a heavenly way to die”, on paper, is a grim and depressing declaration of eternal love, but when crooned by Mozza and backed by that stunning orchestral arrangement, becomes something truly uplifting and captivating.
The Queen Is Dead
is as close to a perfect album as any band could get. It’s varied and consistent, with each of its key moments perfectly realised and superbly done; and marks a leap forward in all areas – song-writing and arrangement skill, lyrical depth, and production quality are all noticeably improved. As a whole, and excluding their vital compilation efforts, The Queen Is Dead
might just be the most accomplished and thrilling album the group put out, and that’s really saying something. The Queen may be dead but long live The Smiths.