Sunday, May 23, 2021

This Charming Man

Cranky Steven Patrick Morrissey was most comfortable in his childhood bedroom, firing off vitriolic missives to music magazines. Awkward and sexually ambiguous, he seemed neither frontman nor poster boy. Yet one day in 1982, Johnny Marr knocked on his door on a hunch that the 23-year-old misfit might become "this charming man." The partnership that ensued led to the most important music of the decade (if not the most influential). Marr was, alongside Robert Smith of The Cure, the most inventive guitarist of his generation, whether providing the jangle to "This Charming Man" the siren squall to "How Soon Is Now?" the cinematic scope of "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me," or the delicate solo to "Shoplifters of the World Unite." And Morrissey’s lyrics followed in the tradition of Oscar Wilde and Rimbaud — lovelorn, yes, but funny, literate, smart, alive.

Tony Fletcher in his bio A Light That Never Goes Out says, "Those my own age, most of us parents now, some even with angst-ridden teenagers of our own, mostly greet a mention of the Smiths as if I was speaking of a former lover. I imagine they're the soundtrack for as many lovelorn teens now as they were back in the 1980s. They're cherished in a way that it's hard to cherish the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Their songs might have charted higher and sold more, but they never had a 'How Soon Is Now?' with a line like 'I am human and I need to be loved/ Just like everybody else does.' The Smiths knitted together the people who knew them and loved them. "I think he was just waiting for the right person to knock on his door," Marr said of their first encounter. Morrissey was essentially 'discovered' by an 18-year-old kid, and lo and behold off they went to become the greatest partnership since Lennon/McCartney. And yet Marr had to pass a test: Morrissey had a huge collection of singles. He asked Johnny to play a song. Marr found a rare single by the Marvelettes, put on the B-side, "You're the One," and sang along to every word. A+, indeed, the right choice.
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Like REM from the same era, The Smiths' canon was chock full of poetry, poly-syllabic words (in Morrissey’' case you could understand them – Stipe is a different story), and intermittent moans and groans. The Smiths made you (make you) feel smarter, less pathetically alone, and more sexually excited than any band of any era. Marr's ability to make musical poetry worthy of Morrissey's twisted, elevated, and self-obsessed lyrics is irresistible.

It's been 30 odd now since the first LP, yet it remains fresh and honest, sincere and overwhelming, just like yesterday.  The best tracks:
"This Charming Man" - The Smiths' effortlessly catchy second single finds Morrissey getting a tempting proposition from an older, suave and "charming man" in a fancy car with smooth leather seats. There's a simultaneous sense of decadence and elegance. More so than any other riff on the album, Marr's glistening guitar-work encourages the listener to get up and dance, with Rourke's walking bass line injecting an even deeper groove.

"Hand in Glove" - The band's first single is still a truly beautiful song. Marr and Rourke weave their instruments in and out to create an ominous new wave soundscape, while Morrissey gives a dire vocal performance that's classic Smiths. He sings words of devotion, almost sure he's found love, but has that nagging feeling he'll soon lose it. The piercing wail of harmonica adds the perfect amount of torture to the mix.

"What Difference Does It Make?"As the album's most direct "rock song" kicks into gear, it's clear that side B has outdone "The Smiths'" A side. With its prominent new wave guitars and strong hooks, this single is less challenging than much of the album's other cuts (perhaps that's why both Morrissey and Marr have since criticized it), though it's still one of the Smiths' most enduring songs. Morrissey's wailing falsetto in the outro remains deeply glamorous.

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