Review by: Michael Strait
Album assigned by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez
I’ve nothing revolutionary to say about The Smiths. Have they ever made a bad album? Probably not. Have they ever even made an album that was anything less than great? Well, I don’t think so. Is this, nonetheless, probably their weakest? Yeah, I guess. “Meat Is Murder” is a bad song, after all, and that’s a rare thing to find on a Smiths album. I’ve no problem with Morrissey preaching his vegetarian beliefs – I’m no vegetarian myself, but if you believe you’re saving lives I think you’re entitled to act like it – but the song is just kinda dreary; it’s got a piano playing a fairly hackneyed, generic little line and some really corny bleating sheep samples here and there, and Morrissey’s really not making much sense. “Death for no reason is murder”? U wot, m8? Murder is the premeditated and unlawful taking of another life – “death for no reason” encompasses anything from manslaughter to death by misadventure. You sure you wanna go through with this line of reasoning, Moz? Was Princess Diana murdered, too? Ah, wait, don’t answer that…
Ehm, anyway, now that I’ve got the bad stuff out of the way I can focus on the cool shit. Firstly, Marr’s being his usual self on this album, which means his guitar not only sounds like it’s glowing but makes everything else on the album sound sorta like it’s glowing as well. He’s really good at weaving notes around all the other members of the band, placing them like candles in just the right places for maximum light coverage. He does it especially well on the penultimate track here, “Barbarism Begins At Home”, in which he and bassist Andy Rourke (their secret weapon) combine their powers to make this really nice interlocking groove that’s powerful enough to carry the song for near-on 7 minutes without changing or getting boring. Throw in some classic Morrissey social miserablism (this time it’s about the dangers of overzealous parental discipline) and you’ve got yerself a classic Smiths song.
There’s a bunch of those in here, actually. My favourite is probably “Nowhere Fast”, which contains one of the classic Morrissey verses (“and when I’m lying in my bed/ I think about life and I think about death/ and neither one particularly ap-peeeaaals to meeeee” – I mean, I know I can relate to that, I dunno about y’all) and a main riff that’s probably the clearest shoutout they ever did to the 60s pop they loved so much. It’s really catchy, really energetic and pretty much instantly memorable, and the same goes for “What She Said”, in which Marr’s guitar slides and falls about like an aeroplane caught in turbulence while Joyce’s drums hit that sweet spot between careful precision and rollicking intensity. I also really like “Rusholme Ruffians”, mostly for that awesome role-swap between Marr and Rourke; Marr’s acoustic on that song spends its time playing a fairly understated rhythm while Rourke’s bass takes up lead melodic duties, and Morrissey has some of his very best self-deprecating, society-deprecating humour here – what’s not to love?
On that front, there’s also “The Headmaster Ritual”, which has one of Marr’s most very gorgeous guitar lines backing up Morrissey as he rips apart his old school. “Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools/ spineless bastards all…” damn, Morrissey, you couldn’t possibly be bitter, could ya? I’m not gonna lie and say I can relate (I was a veritable teacher’s pet in school) but what’s important is that Morrissey makes me understand his bitterness perfectly, as if he’s baring his soul to me over a few drinks and with a few more exquisite metaphors than usual. Then there’s “I Want The One I Can’t Have”, which is an indispensable part of British rock’s longstanding tradition of class commentary. “A double bed/ and a stalwart lover for sure/ these are the riches of the poor”… it’s subtler than, say, “Shangri-La” or “Common People”, but no less effective for that.
There’s a couple nice slower moments, too. “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” and “Well I Wonder” are both acoustic ballads, though naturally they hardly sound like yer average acoustic ballad. Part of this is down to the production – the acoustic guitar on this album sounds weirdly thin and anemic, which would normally be a criticism but somehow isn’t here – but it’s also got a lot to do with The Smiths’ songwriting chops. The former has some lovely breaks in which Marr is allowed to lay down some gorgeous slices of guitar texture, and both of ‘em have these really pretty extended codas in which Morrissey retreats from the forefront and lets the instrumentation breathe. Relaxing, pleasant stuff, but there’s also enough going on to hold one’s interest if one is paying attention.
Man, I’m sorry for being so boring – I’ve nary a bad thing to say about this record. But hey, what can I say? It’s earned my praise. The Smiths were an almost frighteningly good band, and this, except for the title track, is them at their best – because they were almost never not at their best. Just get their whole discography and be done with it.