Perhaps the album I’ve grown to love in the shortest amount of time, I feel that the best way to analyze The Smiths’ 1984 debut is to talk about its place in (my view of) the ranking of what is oft-considered to be the band’s colossally important output.
That said, this album was my answer to “What’s your favourite album?” for far longer than any other LP claimed the title. Then again, I can’t help but admit that The Queen Is Dead is decidedly the better album, which gives way to an explanation: while I would argue that TQID has arguably better-crafted songs and could pass as a best-of, the band’s debut works better as an album. I am aware it is a controversial claim, but whereas TQID’s songs are beautiful island unto themselves and happened to be grouped up (save for perhaps “I Know It’s Over” into “Never Had No One Ever”), the songs on The Smiths work much better when they segue into one another, and so I usually end up listening to the whole album, if not big chunks of it. Seeing that their debut LP has tracks which aren’t as good, I consider this to be a minus, yet I contend that the 1984 album has better songs, not just worse.
Now that the comparisons with their other landmark album are dead, I am glad to see that the online consensus is that this album is better than all others besides that one (save for Hatful of Hollow which gets mentioned far more, even if it should be regarded as a compilation IMHO), considering that this has as many avid supporters as it has detractors. This is in no small part to divisive tracks such as “Miserable Lie” and “I Don’t Owe You Anything”, but more about those elephants in a second.
A common complaint about this album is the fact that the production is of a bad quality (the word “tinny” is used a lot), but this is, in my opinion, a plus. This album is, along with Meat is Murder, the most post-punk the band has ever been, and the lo-fi, raw production helps the edgier songs on here such as “You’ve Got Everything Now” and “Miserable Lie”. By no measures though does this album belong to that genre – it is still a pop album through and through. At 42:46 (not counting the addition of “This Charming Man” on the original US release, which I will not address in this review), this album’s runtime is an exercise in restraint and a testament to Morrissey’s skills as a lyricist, seeing as manages to bottle an amazing array of emotions in less than three quarters of an hour.
Starting with “Reel Around the Fountain”, a sentimental ballad which at first sight deals with child abuse (“Slap me on the patio”), this album gets off to an emotionally confusing start as it is revealed that the words are about a romantic interest (“Meet me at the fountain/Shove me on the patio/I’ll take it slowly”, “You can pin and mount me like a butterfly”). What holds this song together, as is the case with pretty much the whole album, is the interplay between Marr’s deceiving guitar (just to throw it out here: If you don’t understand why people praise Johnny Marr, then try picking up a guitar for 30 minutes) and Morrissey’s longing, flamboyant voice which needs no introduction. Thematically, it is one of the strongest tracks here, without doubt, but it is not one of my favourites as I always find myself skipping straight to the next track (though those drums do kick off the album in grand fashion).
“You’ve Got Everything Now” follows in the footsteps of the opening track in the sense that it also investigates a conflict of emotions, which is a theme aptly explored on this LP. This song is an upbeat number, and the most striking thing about it is Marr’s guitar. The verse riff is nothing short of immense and creates a funky yet jittery feeling that is only exacerbated by Morrissey’s downright genius lyrics, describing an encounter with an old classmate (“Back at the old grey school/I would win and you would lose”) about which the protagonist feels bad, seeing as the other person has “everything now”, while they’ve never had a job as they “never wanted one” or were “too shy”.
No I’ve never had a job, because I never wanted one
I’ve seen you smile, but I’ve never really heard you laugh
So who is rich and who is poor, I cannot say, oh
The genius of Morrissey’s lyrics rests in how they explore themes that are taken out of the common man’s life. Heavily influenced by Kitchen sink realism, his writing explores the perceived little things that dominate modern life, such as love problems, sexuality, relationships with parents, revolt towards authority etc. Besides the lyrics, Morrissey’s voice is also a catalyst of those feelings – whether those lyrics are about him or someone else, you are convinced that they describe his plights, he sounds THAT desperate. Also, going back to Johnny Marr, the chorus section is nothing short of immense. The man is a robot when it comes to picking notes from all the imaginable scales.
“Miserable Lie” is the first of the double-punch that is tracks A3/A4, and one of my favourite tracks from this release. The emotional intro with that mini-riff is punctuated by Morrissey summarizing the situation at hand: “So goodbye/You stay with your own kind/And I’ll stay with mine/There’s something against us/There’s not time”. The second part of the song is a frenetic post-punk attack which is segued into from Morrissey’s bitter, biting indignation: “I look at yours/You laugh at mine/And love is just a miserable lie”. The ease with which he’s displaying his hurt and loudly proclaiming that love is just a “miserable lie” is expert writing – it tells us everything we need to know about the protagonist, namely that he’s desperate, sad, frustrated, basically something all of us could relate to. This disappointment prompts the character to ponder the meaning of life: “What do we get for our trouble and pain? Whalley Range!” What follows is the most cathartic piece of music I know – in the most vulnerable, desperate voice, Morrissey wails and cries his way: “I’m just a country mile behind the world” and “I need advice” are repeated and drawn out from the depths of emotional pain. If you can’t FEEL his pain and disappointment then this might be just tuneless wailing, but for me, and lots of others who can relate, this is one of the most powerful pieces of music ever put to tape. Rarely do we get to see someone so vulnerable and honest.
In the second punch to the guts, “Pretty Girls Make Graves”, Morrissey explores his shyness around girls and, when he avoids the advances (“Give in to lust/Give up to lust/Heaven knows we’ll soon be dust”) of a woman (“I’m not the man you think I am”, “I could have been wild and I could have been free/But nature played this trick on me”, “She’s too rough and I’m too delicate”) which then gets swept away by a more confident lover, he loudly declares “I’ve lost my faith in womanhood”. The bitterness in those words, and the ease with which he proclaims them, as well as the self-pity contained by those endlessly quotable lyrics, make this one of the standouts tracks along with “Miserable Lie” in the Smiths’ discography – they are some of the most transparent, visceral and unstable songs recorded by the band. The emotional outro contains one of Marr’s most introspective riffs and is devastating – Morrissey looks quite affected in live recordings.
“The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”, along with “Hand in Glove” and “What Difference Does It Make” are the songs I cannot connect with as much as the others, even though the first is of a personal nature to me with the lyrics concerning an older woman in a romantic relationship with a younger man being quite relatable, although I do admit that it brings the album down. “Hand in Glove”, another piece with homosexual undertones, suffers from a very crowded mix, and shows the limitations of the production’s lo-fi quality, whereas “What Difference Does It Make” is one of the hallowed singles of the band (“I’d leap in front of a flying bullet for you”) and for good reasons: Marr’s riff is nothing short of amazing, yet the track on a whole does not contain the deeply personal and cathartic release that songs A2-A5 do. Besides, it just doesn’t appeal to me as much.
“Still Ill”, on the other hand, is a jangle pop masterpiece. From the drums + muted strings funky intro, to the verse and bridge riffs which I’ve spent hours studying on guitar, to Morrissey’s lyricism cleverly dissecting the state of England (“I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving/England is mine and it owes me a living/But ask me why and I’ll spit in your eye”) and cramming in some homosexual references (“Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body? I don’t know”) and self-analysis (“Under the iron bridge we kissed/And although I ended up with sore lips/It just wasn’t like the old days anymore … /Am I still ill?”). The lyrics and the guitar steal the show completely – though the same sections are repeated, this is an amazingly clever take on the traditional pop song: there is so much ingenuity, both from Marr and Morrissey, to be found on a 3:20 track that it is just jaw-dropping.
The last couple of elephants in this room – tracks which people only mention in passing, are the exceptional closing tracks. The guitar part of “I Don’t Owe You Anything” – funky upstrokes and some of the most intricate and fun to play riffs, along with the atmospheric organ, make it sound like an 80s slow jam for dance halls. The lyrics are Morrissey’s take on the “nice guy syndrome”: the protagonist “buys” the other person on “stolen wine” and so walks “all this way” to their house, just to hear them say that they don’t want to go out tonight, to which the protagonist bluntly claims “I don’t owe you anything tonight/But you owe me something/Repay me now!” before trying to emotionally manipulate the other (“You should not go to them/Let them come to you/Just like I do”). The real gem of this Morrissey’s lyricism comes in the form of the final lines:
Too freely on your lips
Words prematurely said
Oh, but I know what will make you smile tonight
Life is never kind,
Life is never kind,
Oh, but I know what will make you smile tonight.
Besides being absolutely gorgeous, they complete the transition of the protagonist from demanding and bitter, to manipulative, and to appeasing. And all through a few repeated lines. I think that this is the charm and biggest strength of Morrissey, namely expressing so much and so clearly, in so little words. Going back to the guitar: it is incredible, as always.
“Suffer Little Children” is an ode to the dead children which were the victims of the Moors Murders around Manchester in ’63-’65. Neither condemning nor praising the killings, this song is poignant to say the least, and the lyrics are very imaginative, considering that Morrissey was only a few years old at the time of the murders: “Dig a shallow grave and there lay me down” , “Oh John you’ll never be a man/And you’ll never see home again/Oh Manchester, so much to answer for”. The real highlight, however, is Marr’s guitar. Backed by subdued acoustic guitar chords, the two main riffs (and their variations) are some of the best things he has ever come up with, up there along with “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” and the previous track on the album. They are evocative, mourning and fit Morrissey’s voice and lyrics perfectly – to this date, it is one of the best synergies of guitar and voice I’ve heard in music.
To conclude this review though, I hope this has shed light on the elephants in the room, namely the “album tracks” which so many gloss over dismissively, as well as its uneven status which, in turn, makes it sound more like an actual album than a collection of random songs. Most of the praise directed the band’s way is due to their singles, but the album tracks here are what I consider the heart and soul of The Smiths: they are cathartic, immense in their lyricism and nothing short of moving. Johnny Marr poured his skill into every riff he did on this album, while Morrissey’s still unpolished vocals and ever-present falsettos only contribute to the raw, miserable production. The only reason these tracks aren’t appreciated more is because they weren’t actually released as singles (granted, something like “Miserable Lie” might have forever pigeonholed them as outsiders). While it does take a while for The Smiths to grow on you, I cannot think of a better and more honest introduction to one of the most revered bands out there. Starting here only makes following their progress more satisfying.
Key Tracks: “Reel Around the Fountain” “You’ve Got Everything Now”, “Miserable Lie”, “Pretty Girls Make Graves”, “Still Ill”, “Hand in Glove”, “What Difference Does It Make?”, “I Don’t Owe You Anything”, “Suffer Little Children”
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When I’m not busy being a corporate drone, you’ll find me writing reviews and essays about music, video games, films and other nerd stuff encompassing all eras.