The Smiths’ ability to turn shameless solipsism into incalculable stardom was their entirely unique accomplishment. With remarkable consistency and integrity, Manchester singer/lyricist (Stephen) Morrissey and company proudly represent the traditional values of selfishness, self-pity and the unbearable anguish of love. His melancholy romantic sensibility makes Elizabeth Barrett Browning sound like Nelson Algren.
The key to the Smiths’ enormous success (in addition to sixteen UK hit singles, all seven of the quartet’s albums went Top 10 there) was that the no-nonsense band — under the direction of brilliant guitarist/songwriter Johnny Marr — offset Morrissey’s flightiness with bright and catchy music. Supported by a deft rhythm section, Marr’s spare, hooky guitar created a seriously compelling underground (i.e., self-defined and uninfluenced by the existing commercial order) pop sound with a simplicity more telling than all of the singer’s unwanted confessions.
The Smiths boasts ten near-perfect tunes (the US edition adds an eleventh, “This Charming Man”), over which Morrissey sings — in his wavery, defenseless voice — about the bittersweet agonies of coming out of the closet. He overindulges to the point of sounding almost like a parody of a lounge singer, but goes far enough to make it more daring than forced. With lines alternately funny (“Hand in glove/The sun shines out of our behinds”) and clunky (“Does the body rule the mind/Or does the mind rule the body/I dunno”), the album dares you to resist it and then makes it very difficult to do so.
The UK-only Hatful of Hollow is a generous sixteen-track collection of singles and radio sessions which doubles The Smiths‘ best cuts and betters its lesser material. It also adds the tremolo-crazy single “How Soon Is Now?,” which takes the heaviest art-rock dance groove since U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and throws the lines “I am the son/and the heir/Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar” in its path. Quite a formidable obstacle, but the groove wins out. The Smiths in a nutshell.
Meat Is Murder is both less frilly and less appealing than prior efforts. Morrissey is nearly as dry as the rest of the band, and the whole thing sounds two- dimensional. And while anyone at all disposed towards tragic romanticism can accept some of his indulgences in that direction, who can forgive the vegetarian self- righteousness of the title track? (The US edition adds “How Soon Is Now?” to the program.)
The most dangerous gift for the chronically self- obsessed is a devoted audience, and The Queen Is Dead shows just how far Morrissey could take his outrageous neurotic fantasies. “Never Had No One Ever” is ostensibly a paean to virginal celibacy; “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” questions the benefits of stardom; “Bigmouth Strikes Again” (which goes out on a limb to claim “…now I know how Joan of Arc felt”), “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” and “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” obliquely address an assortment of insecurities. The band is typically astute and subtle, although Marr’s guitar playing takes a relatively inconspicuous lead role.
The World Won’t Listen, the Smiths’ second compilation, contains singles (A’s and B’s) and obscurities from 1985-’86, including “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore,” “Shakespeare’s Sister,” “Shoplifters of the World Unite” and “Panic.” The album contains one otherwise- unreleased item, “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby” (later covered to good effect by Kirsty MacColl on her Kite album).
The American-only Louder Than Bombs two-record set contains many of the same tracks (deleting those which appeared on The Queen Is Dead and two others) as The World Won’t Listen, adding album tracks and single sides dating as far back as 1983. The album contains such Smiths essentials as “Hand in Glove,” “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” “William, It Was Really Nothing” and “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want.” Five numbers feature ex-Aztec Camera/Bluebells guitarist Craig Gannon, who was briefly a Smith; “Ask” has backing vocals by MacColl. Amazingly, the band’s stylistic consistency and musical excellence never falter, leaving the impression that these two dozen songs could have been recorded in one lengthy session. Remarkable.
Marr and Morrissey parted company in late 1987, putting the Smiths to rest with a disappointing final album, Strangeways, Here We Come. In spots, Marr’s guitar takes a harder tone than ever before. Drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke also come on stronger than usual; strings and saxophone contribute to the crowded melodic din. Morrissey’s lyrics are halfbaked and more artless than usual, turning especially irksome when they substitute naked anger and disgust (“Paint a Vulgar Picture,” “Unhappy Birthday”) for clever snideness. The delicate “Girlfriend in a Coma” and the shimmering “Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” are the album’s best tracks, and they aren’t exceptional additions to the canon.
The live Rank album (recorded in London in October ’86) closes the book on the Smiths’ extraordinary career with a hastily paced program of songs drawn largely from The Queen Is Dead and that year’s singles. While the band (augmented by Gannon) sounds great, Morrissey’s singing is uneven, and the song selection leaves much to be desired.
The Peel Sessions EP — reissued on cassette and CD in the US with a different cover and a singular title — is a more exciting semi-live souvenir, containing seriously energetic 1983 versions of “What Difference Does It Make,” “Handsome Devil” and two others. Unfortunately for fans, “Reel Around the Fountain” is the only cut not already released on Hatful of Hollow.
Marr went off to record with Bryan Ferry, Paul McCartney, Talking Heads, Kirsty MacColl and others before joining the The and undertaking other projects. Morrissey prudently launched a solo career.