Preamble: Avoid the opening paragraph for your own good.
I am forced to approach this review with the utmost degree of trepidation. As if it isn't bad enough that I've avoided reviewing this album for over a year now, once I finally forced myself to analyse this album, I couldn't manage to put my feelings for it into words. I've tried countless opening paragraphs - apologising for my lack of objectivity all while attempting to justify it, bemusing the creativity of this record in a world that should long ago have run out of artistic possibilities, on and on. Perhaps the simplest way to approach this is to explain why this is such a titanic endeavour for me. We all have one band, one record, perhaps one song, which opened us up to music, to art, and to be particularly overdramatic, to the world itself. At least, I hope we all have that record. To go through life without a love for music seems to me to be worse than to go through life without love. Much like love for another person, love for music is an immensely private experience. Others might appreciate your love from the outside, they might respect it or tolerate it or praise it. But they can never understand it. They might go through similar experience, share similar highs and pitfalls. But every musical journey is as exclusively unique as every life journey. As such, I don't expect people to love Hatful of Hollow
as I do. I understand people will listen to it, and be immediately turned off. Others may listen to it, enjoy it, but never give it a second though. I regrettably understand the colossal majority people in this lifetime or the next won't even get the chance to experience it at all. This doesn't bother me, or upset me. Hatful of Hollow
record. Sure, it was released before my birth, and millions of other people are proud owners. Doesn't matter. When I listen to this record, it is just my ears, my mind, and the music. The Smiths opened me up to so much music I can't even begin to contemplate it. It isn't even so much similar bands they introduced me to, nor just bands that influenced the Smiths or vice versa. The Smiths reaffirmed a love for music in general. They made Ella Fitzgerald more soulful. They made Elliott Smith more heartbreaking. They made exploration and the search for music as exhilarating as listening to the music itself. They awoke a love I never knew I had in me. I would willingly be stranded on a desert island would I were to have only this album with me. And a device to play it. And electricity. Food and fresh water would be great too.
But to put all the personal twaddle aside, Hatful of Hollow
truly is a great record. The Smiths had an impressive catalogue in their regrettably short life, and the fact that they were able to release such an exceptional compilation after nothing more than one album to their name is a testament to their early musical spark and vigour. Hatful of Hollow
was released in late 1984 to tide the gap between their eponymous debut's release earlier in the year and their eagerly anticipated sophomore studio album, Meat is Murder
is a compilation album composed of singles, b-sides, and alternative takes to several of the debut's hit tracks. For fans of the band, the album was a worthy appeasement to see them through to the release of the follow-up to The Smiths
. For those unfamiliar with the Smiths, it was a fitting introduction to the best aspects of the group.
While not precisely unique, the Smiths' music contrasted with the synth-heavy pop music of the mid-80s which focused on vain subject matter more associated with coke-fuelled fashionistas than average teenagers. The Smiths were introduced as an alternative to the insipid pop music of the day, offer all the same infectious hooks but with a more traditional guitar-based delivery. But most crucial to the Smiths' success and acceptance among finicky student listeners was lead singer and lyricist Morrissey. Stevie sang with plaintive untrained voice, but often lapsed into a distant tone as if unimpressed by the banality of it all. The combination of the emotive and the emotionless, along with Morrissey's enviable writing talents, made the Smiths a force to be reckoned with in the pop world. Morrissey, with the plainest of words, managed to cut to the heart of the teenaged psyche. He was never a very dramatic or verbose writer - on Hollow
, he perfectly exhibits how simple, direct poetry can be much more poignant than poetry laden so deep in imagery and hidden under so many layers of metaphors that the writer almost tricks the reader/listener into think they're writing about anything other than retelling what they had for breakfast the previous morning.
On "Girl Afraid", for example, Morrissey perfectly retells the feeling of awkwardness, desperateness, and timidity that flail about in the teenage mind during a seemingly innocuous encounter in a basement, of all places. He also has a supreme talent of hitting on both the male and female perspectives, especially in said song. Morrissey's sexual ambiguousness, both in his media personality and in his lyrics, allowed the listener to mould the song to their own liking and interpret it however they saw fit. Some saw "Reel Around the Fountain" as nothing more than an harmless love song, others saw it as a bestial telling of paedophilia. Some listeners interpreted "These Things Take Time" as an innocent retelling of a friendly drunken afternoon - others interpreted as a ghastly abomination detailing unrequited homosexual love.
But Morrissey's writing talents and vocal contributions (talent might not be the right word in this case) alone would not make this record a success. Had Morrissey had his way in terms of the music, we likely would have witnessed some frightening Twinkle-meets-Billy Fury-meets-New York Dolls muddle. Instead, guitarist Johnny Marr took firm hold of the writing helms and made the Smiths listenable. Influenced heavily by Keith Richards (Rolling Stones), Ray Davies (the Kinks) Mick Ronson (David Bowie) and James Honeyman-Scott (Pretenders), Johnny Marr had an intense understanding of how to effectively compose guitar-based pop music. His jangling, 60s-harking music, while on paper it may not have looked a fitting accompaniment to Morrissey's whiny livejournal ramblings, served in fact as a perfect foil. Morrissey and Marr's frictional relationship lead to some of the best pop songs put to record. Witness the jangly bounce of "This Charming Man" set against Morrissey's morose whining, or the vibrant "Still Ill" coupled with Morrissey's cynical observations. The relationship is odd but reassuringly fitting. If Marr's music was as dry and resigned as Morrissey tends to be, Hollow
would have been boring to listen to. Had Marr been overly gloomy or dark in his compositions to match with Morrissey, it would have made the record unbearable to listen to. Instead, the record is a brilliant mix of the happy and the sad; the discordant and the melodious; the acquiescent and the rebellious. "This Charming Man" emanates a "dance-around-the-room" happy and giddy sentiment. Lyrically, it is quite the opposite.
This juxtaposition that graces every song only helps to highlight the few instances when Marr matches Morrissey's depressive state and creates an all-encompassingly emotive piece. On "Back to the Old House", Marr's reverberating acoustic makes a rare appearance, and coupled only with Morrissey's voice the song is spare, isolated and effective. On "Please Please Please Let Me Get what I Want", what Morrissey has referred to as "the perfect Smiths' song", in under two minutes they truly do cap off the album in a subdued, melancholic pop song - representative of the better aspects of the band.
It is difficult to single out any particular track as being a highlight, and excessively impossible to name even one bad or unnecessary song. "Accept Yourself" may have fulfilled this role, but it is saved by the infectious pop chorus.
Attempting to do this album justice is simply not possible. Every song on the album is a flawless testament to the genius of one of the oddest pairs in pop music history. Morrissey and Marr bounced off each other in a way they have never been able to match since. Listen to Hatful of Hollow
and you will hear two of the best minds in pop music at work.
The Queen is Dead
is oft regarded as the pinnacle of the Smiths music, and as one the cornerstones of music history. But Hatful of Hollow
, despite being a compilation, serves as a more accurate portrayal of the untempered brilliance of the Smiths. And more importantly, from a personal viewpoint, it was the album that opened my eyes to the world and which I will never be able to ignore. Even in eighty years, well after I've moved on from my teenaged sentiments and have fully matured as a music listener, I will have this album to thank.