Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Smiths 1: The Smiths

In a time when U2 and R.E.M. were already considered too mainstream for the college alternative, The Smiths were the absolute rulers of the scene (with the possible exception of The Cure, who were a lot synthier and projected even shriller yodeling). Looking back it makes perfect sense; in Morrissey, sensitive kids had an icon they could worship and hurl wilted flowers at. This self-styled “poet” crooned his pained lyrics with calculated repetition, equally inspired by Oscar Wilde, Joy Division and soulful ‘60s pop as he was obsessed with Hollywood glamour, gay icons and Britain’s Angry Young Men. Johnny Marr immediately made a name for himself as a guitar hero, providing melodicism and bite wherever either was needed more. And while those two got most of the attention (by design), the rhythm section was nothing to sneeze at—Andy Rourke’s bass percolated right along with Mike Joyce’s powerful drums.
Unfortunately, their self-titled debut doesn’t always deliver that musical combination at its best, or with the same care given to their singles. Throughout The Smiths the vocals are buried, the drums sound robotic and the bass is hidden. This is most apparent on side one; despite starting strong with “Reel Around The Fountain” (which still sounds like the soliloquy of someone who enjoyed the abuse he suffered), it was one of the tracks subjected to piano and organ overdubs by none other than Paul Carrack, halfway between Squeeze and Mike + The Mechanics. “You’ve Got Everything Now” dances near a ska rhythm as Morrissey laments “the terrible mess I’ve made of my life”. “Miserable Lie” begins with a pleasant, sad strum, but degenerates into a pointless stomp with such lyrics as “I’d like to see your underwear” and his falsetto at its most insistent and annoying. “Pretty Girls Make Graves” is an improvement, though it’s clear the guy’s got issues; it even quotes their debut single ere the close. “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” is a circular riff that doesn’t really go anywhere, and the more you listen to the lyrics the more they seem to approach pedophilia.
In the US, “This Charming Man” was added to the LP at the top of side two, and has remained on the album worldwide ever since. It was the smart move, being such a strong single. “Still Ill” is a better mix of music and anger that could have been a single, especially leading into an alternate mix of “Hand In Glove”, that excellent debut, and the snaky riff of “What Difference Does It Make?” “I Don’t Owe You Anything” is another good homage to the heartbroken pop of twenty years before, but it’s overshadowed by the closer. “Suffer Little Children” is the most adventurous composition on the album, as it incorporates some unorthodox changes, but mostly because of the subject matter. The song is an elegy for the victims of the so-called Moors Murders of the early ‘60s, children not much older than Morrissey himself was at the time. While not intended to exploit, the idea to incorporate a woman’s laughter (sounding at first like a sob) makes it a song one would choose to avoid.
There’s enough good on The Smiths to make it a good place to start, but they would improve and quickly. At the same time, there’s enough of what makes Morrissey such an insufferable character that keeps people away from the band completely here too.

The Smiths The Smiths (1984)—3

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