Friday, January 30, 2015

Smiths 4: The Queen Is Dead

The third LP (not counting compilations) by The Smiths has grown in such stature over the years that it hasn’t only topped the best-of lists of 1986, or even the whole decade. Some pundits have gone as far to declare that The Queen Is Dead is the greatest album of all time. While it’s clear those people haven’t heard Mean Business, opinion is one thing and fact altogether another. It’s a good album, but not great, and it should soon be clear why.
The title track is a terrific way to start, with a snippet from some little-known film Morrissey fetishized, cut off by galloping drums and a strong band performance driving the cutting lyrics. Here the guitar is more part of the sound than dominating it. “Frankly. Mr. Shankly” is something of an ‘80s version of “Take This Job And Shove It”, but with the knowing, parodic angle of the narrator. Any chance of “I Know It’s Over” being just another gloomy lament of unrequited love is dashed by beginning (and repeating) “Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head.” In between, he does manage to stir some sympathy as well as empathy. The album’s clunker is “Never Had No One Ever”: it sounds too much like the song that precedes it, retreads the same territory, and is about three times as long as it needs to be. Here are some options: either incorporate some of the lyrics into other songs, or move it to the end of the side, change the arrangement, and make it only as long as it needs to recite the lyrics once, and done. To their credit, the side ends instead with “Cemetry Gates”, a jaunty stroll through said territory, where Our Hero sees the graves of people who’ve died and it seems so unfair that he wants to cry.
Side two, however, is enough to suggest that all those best-album-ever claims might be on to something. Two of their best singles dominate: “Bigmouth Strikes Again”, with its relentless attack and sped-up counterpart; and “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side”, a gorgeous lament decorated by Johnny Marr’s deft orchestration. “Vicar In A Tutu” returns to the rockabilly shuffle that dominated the previous album, and a much better pastiche too. “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, Mozzer’s own “My Way”, would have been a fine closer, that place is instead bestowed upon the one-liner of “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”. While countless songs utilize the fake ending, this one sports a fake beginning.
The Queen Is Dead was easily the band’s best album to date, and they knew it. Their confidence extended to the artwork, which challenged their apostles to squint at the tiny pink lettering on a dark green background. In many ways, it epitomizes what people both love and hate about the band today. Thus it made sense for a reissued, repackaged edition to appear a year after the album’s 30th anniversary. The double-disc expansion added a pile of demos slash early takes plus familiar B-sides. The seven-minute version of the title track is a joy, though the demo of “Never Had No One Never” is marred by a crazy trumpet solo and Morrissey’s laughing over the extended fade. Naturally any fanatic would want the Deluxe Edition, which added a DVD with a high-resolution mix of the album plus a short film, and a third CD touted as “live in Boston”. While actually recorded some thirty miles outside that city’s limits, and not the complete show, it sports a different setlist from the gig recorded two and a half months later and eventually released on Rank.

The Smiths The Queen Is Dead (1986)—4
2017 expanded edition: same as 1986, plus 13 extra tracks (Deluxe Edition adds another 13 tracks plus DVD)

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