Review Summary: “I’ve got the 21st century, breathing down my neck.”
The Smiths discography presents itself, to an outside listener, as absolutely confounding. At its very simplest, the Smiths released four studio albums which ranged from solid (Meat is Murder
) to outstanding (The Queen is Dead
), but the Smiths discography cannot be considered to be complete via only their studio albums by any stretch. Two compilation albums, Hatful of Hollow
and Louder than Bombs
, include not only tracks from their studio albums, but also single only releases, a generous allocation of B-sides, the legendary John Peel sessions, and some other rarities. To make matters even worse for new listeners, these two compilations also share many tracks with a third compilation released around the same time as Louder Than Bombs
, The World Won’t Listen
. Needless to say, it can all be a little bit of a whirlwind – there are multiple versions of some tracks, most of which have noticeably different arrangements or slight differences in structure or production that make it rather difficult to listen to and collect all the recordings for a band that only created music together for five years. It certainly is not for a lack of trying to make listening to the Smiths an easier experience, as multiple “Hits” compilations have been cultivated so that it is theoretically easier to be introduced to the legendary band. In fact, after their breakup in 1987, there have been no less than four compilations of the Smiths music that were put together over the next twenty years, each having its own positives and negatives, but never really grasping the full breadth of the Smiths full output into one collection. Enter: The Sound of the Smiths
, (available as both a one and two disc collection), which was presented to the public as doing the best job of all of the Smiths “hits” compilations (sans Complete) in giving the listener the full experience of essential studio tracks, alongside hidden gems from their single releases.
As a one disc collection, The Sound of the Smiths
plays much like any typical greatest hits package ready for mainstream consumption, collecting most of the bands biggest hits and celebrated songs into a chronologically ordered, and supremely generous 23 song set that traces the evolution of the band throughout their career. Included are a good amount of tracks from the band’s early years, highlighted by the incredibly bouncy bass lines of “This Charming Man,” the winding screeching classic “How Soon is Now?” and the fast-paced jangle of “William, It Was Really Nothing.” Three tracks from their second studio effort, Meat is Murder
follow, including the strongest song from that album, “The Headmaster Ritual,” which can be considered the most standard archetype of most songs of the Smiths catalog. It features the classic Smiths sound: Johnny Marr’s legendary ringing Rickenbacker is front and center, alongside Morrissey’s morose verse lyrics about having bruises “bigger than dinner plates” and nonsensical echoing chorus “na-na-nas,” play off each other flawlessly. Most would agree that the year 1986 was the most productive and creative year of the Smiths’ short career, and rightfully so, many tracks released that year play a large role in the second half of the first disc. This include no less than three absolutely essential tracks (including the rolling “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” and the masterful “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”) from their studio masterpiece, The Queen is Dead
, which are placed rightfully alongside the band’s two strongest single releases, “Panic” and “Ask.” Both of these latter tracks stand out as not only highlights on this compilation, but even in the bands entire catalog because of their incessant guitar lines which are made even richer and fuller by the addition of an additional guitarist, Craig Gannon. These two tracks are pure guitar pop at its absolute finest, full of handclaps, shouting choruses, shuffling beats, and the Smiths distinctive melodic guitar lines at their peak. The first disc is rounded out with tracks from their final album, Strangeways, Here We Come
, which, despite featuring great songs like the string heavy “Girlfriend in a Coma,” finds the band trying faltering only slightly, most notably including three songs “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby,” “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” and “Sheila Take A Bow,” which despite being solid songs individually, almost run together into one because of their similar tones, while the final two tracks end the first disc on a slightly lower note, not matching up to the heights of many of the previous tracks.
The second disc on The Sound of the Smiths
is a much more hodge-podge collection of tracks, wildly mixing live takes (which do not often grab the listener’s attention), alternate takes, demos, and a collection of some the B-sides of many of the singles presented on the first disc. Where as the first disc in this set was full of essential songs, the second disc is for devoted listeners and fans only, combining many of the tracks from Hatful of Hollow
and especially Louder Than Bombs
into one place. As is to be expected, the highlights on the second disc are much fewer and farther between. Surprisingly, the opening track, “Jeane,” which isn’t included on any other compilation to date, is an unexpected, lively highlight that introduces the second disc quite well, giving hope and promise to those digging deeper into the Smiths backlog of forgotten songs, and deeper album cuts. Other wonderful pieces include the gentle acoustic strumming of “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want,” where Morrissey stands up to the unspecified injustices in his life by straight up begging for what he deems as fair, and on “Half a Person,” Morrissey gently asks “if you have five seconds to spare/then I’ll tell you the story of my life” despite spending “six full years of my life on your trail.” It is quite the contrast, a devotion of sacrificing anything and everything, despite being “sixteen, clumsy, and shy,” and a classic example of the wonderful wordplay that Morrissey often displayed in his lyrics via his nearly operatic voice.
On the whole, the Smiths created about seventy original compositions (not including live versions) over their five years together, and this collection “selectively” picks out about forty of them, so as the title reads, it does do a pretty extensive job of conveying “The Sound” of the Smiths to a new listener, although there are noticeable, inexplicable absences (see: “Reel Around the Fountain,” “Frankly Mr. Shankly”). While the two disc collection could have been better organized and thoughtfully put together (especially the second disc), the collection on the whole is the best hits and B-sides compilation that one could listen to. The Sound of the Smiths
provides enough meat on its bones to be a worthwhile listen for those looking for a few simple pop hooks, the musical roots that led to the beginning of Britpop and indie, or how the band so gracefully continued the tradition of melodic British guitar rock throughout the middle part of the eighties in their own way. The Smiths always wanted to be larger than life, a band who could reach as many people as the Beatles, while still remaining loyal and faithful to the independent music scene from which they cultivated their sound. Perhaps the pressure of “the 21st century breathing down (their) necks” eventually played a part in leading to their ultimate demise – but whatever the case may be, The Smiths’ aspirations to be one of the biggest bands in the world certainly adds more to their lore. As Morrissey once sang, “I want to go down in musical history,” and if the alternative and indie music of the last thirty years has any say in the matter, the Smiths certainly accomplished that goal.