Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Queen is Dead and Other Fictions

The Smiths colored both inside and out of the lines. Johnny Marr's view of the world was shaped by the Stones and the Beatles, by the Beach Boys; that's pretty neat coloring there, but Morrissey added the literary and the offbeat; he was Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker and included an inexhaustible array of opinions and lifestyle choices that offered a radical break with Margaret Thatcher's (and Ronald Reagan's) 80s.  He sings of love, knowing he'll lose it once again, or it will lose him. There is always a degree of torture added into the mix, a certain idealized hope and immediate frustration, a scribbling outside the lines.

For a band that released only four full-length (real) albums, the Smiths’ catalog is a nightmare to untangle. In Britain, they were immediate and justifiable stars, with hits like "Hand in Glove" and "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now," but in the States, it was holey pockets of devotees, 80s hipsters growing out of Depeche Mode and Haicut 100. While the inarguable manner in which the Smiths' music has aged over time has burnished their rep beyond dispute, it is not difficult to comprehend how alienating they were to American audiences. Even as ostensibly progressive bands like R.E.M. flourished on commercial radio, Americans weren't prepared to reckon with Morrissey's challenge: a dyed-in-the-wool rock star who never on any level referenced his adoration for the girls. George Michael did; so did Elton John. Even Boy George was easier to accept because he was a simple caricature, but Morrissey was something different altogether: icy, acid of wit, foreign in nearly every regard, and a man.

The Smiths can be easily defined, but create a rubric of their own, once again coloring outside the context of the lines, flipping off AMDistinct Atmosphere and Era: The Smiths are an 80s band, a pissed off one, and yet still there was time for art and beauty, a time to wake up and smell the bus fumes.  That sense of era is promulgated by Morrissey's album cover choices, a love a 60s actors and a general hollow feel, a whole hatful. Powerful Storytelling: So many of their songs derive their impact with the skilled simplicity with which the lyrics construct everything. Intrigue: The best Smithsongs create a brilliant counter-intuitive effect of being complex and simple, plain and fancy.  There is clarity here.  Some girls really are bigger than others. Humanity: The Smiths are penultimate to nothing in terms of staunch, raw feelings. 

The best of the albums is The Queen is Dead (AM10), but The Smiths and Meat is Murder are pure AM8s, and Strangeways Here We Come is undeniably an AM7. It's interesting that Rough Trade played so willy-nilly with the studio albums and the abundance of compilations.  It's hard not to rate an album like Hatful of Hollow, another clear AM10 were it an album. Indeed if we as listeners were given the same liberties (and today we'd just make a playlist/mix tape), there'd be a struggle not to slap on an AM11.  That in mind, here's mine; I call it 20 years, 7 months, and 27 days (AM11)

1. Hand in Glove                                                          7. There is a Light That Never Goes Out
2. Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now                   8. Girlfriend in a Coma
3. William, It Was Really Nothing                         9. Back to the Old House
4. How Soon is Now                                                  10. The Queen is Dead
5. The Boy With Thorn is His Side                        11. This Charming Man
6. Big Mouth Strikes Again                                     12. Please, Please, Please