What's Still Great

Sorrow’s Native Sons

The Smiths' catalogue at 20.

By 3.21.14

Wikimedia Commons/Warner Music Group
Send to Kindle

What everybody forgets about the Smiths is how much fun they were. 

 And not just fun: The band careened through the '80s putting out four studio albums which were joyful, sexy, funny, self-deprecating, silly, and even sometimes compulsively danceable. The myth of Morrissey and his mopey muse has some truth to it—and he made the jokes first, in song titles like “Miserable Lie,” “Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now,” “Pretty Girls Make Graves” and the rest—but the band mocked by the Pet Shop Boys for their “Miserablism” spent most of their time whistling past the cemet'ry gates.

Now is a great time to rediscover the carnival side of the Smiths. To mark the thirty-year anniversary of their 1984 debut, iTunes is re-releasing their complete albums, remastered for iTunes by guitarist Johnny Marr. It's a bit “no progress in history” to be told that the remastered sound quality is as good as on the LPs, but for those of us who spent adolescent hours respooling cassette tape back into the cassettes with our pinky fingers, the remastered Smiths sound clear and bright and deliciously impure.

Most of the core elements are already in place on 1984's The Smiths, with Joe Dallessandro brooding shirtlessly on the cover. Mike Joyce's drumming is more metronome than instrument, but Andy Rourke's bass plays against Marr's dreamy, giddy guitar lines, with Morrissey's lush voice spilling out over the top. The remastering gives you a good sense of the Smiths as a complete sound, an aesthetic rather than just two guys and their backup band, but if you love the Smiths you love them for Marr and Morrissey. 

Morrissey doesn't sing: He divulges, he promises, he turns even blunt angry lyrics (“Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools”) into teasing, high-handed taunts. The first Smiths song I ever heard was “Reel Around the Fountain,” at the top of a cassette my first girlfriend dubbed for me, with its glistering guitar and shimmering piano. It's a tender song (“Oh people see no worth in you/I do”), silly (“You're the bees' knees, but so am I”), and startlingly, shiveringly risque. 

I dreamt about you last night
And I fell out of bed twice.
You can pin and mount me, like a butterfly.

And then rueful (“But 'Take me to the haven of your bed'/Was something that you never said”) and wryly resigned. For all the insinuation in Morrissey's voice as he trips down the lyrics, “I'll take it slowly,” he ends on a classic Smiths note of romantic disappointment and battered hope.

The Smiths could wring humor—often at their own expense—from anger, vengeance, failure in career and in romance, thwarted sexual longing, and wallflower loneliness. They clowned lines like, “What she said: 'I smoke because I'm hoping for an early death/And I need to cling to something,'” turning what could have been self-seriousness into sans-souci. The standard m.o. was to sing bluntly depressing lyrics in that lip-curled, sultry voice, against bright jangling guitars. Joyce came into his own in the later albums, giving some songs a driven fury and others a tidal calm. There are only a few truly great Smiths songs which sound depressed. (I'd nominate the brutal, throaty anguish of “I Know It's Over,” the gentle sorrow of “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle,” and the liquor-on-ice mourning of “Death of a Disco Dancer,” but only a few of the other slow-dive songs.) If you've never heard “Miserable Lie” before, you'll find that even this self-parodic moany thing turns into an irresistible tarantella. People who picture Morrissey as a cow-eyed Hamlet wilting against a pillar haven't heard him howling, “I know the windswept, mystical air/It means I'd like to see your underwear.”

And in an age of politicized gay anthems, let's note that the Smiths were doing songs like “Handsome Devil” and “This Charming Man” in the decade of Clause 28. “Hand in Glove” shifts seamlessly from defiance to tenderness; it ends on a note of humiliated acceptance (“And I'll probably never see you again”) without ever giving up the earlier moods. The Smiths' sexual ambiguity—if “ambiguity” is the word for a band that gave us, “This man said it's gruesome/That someone so handsome should care,” or a song called “Vicar in a Tutu”—enhanced their irony and poignancy. The handsome, hapless bicyclist of “This Charming Man” can't even flirt without wondering, “Will nature make a man of me yet?”

The desires on display weren't safe or subtle—rarely has “raised on Prisoners' Aid” been invoked as an obvious qualification for a lover. (“He killed a policeman when he was thirteen/And somehow that really impressed me.”) The narrator of the songs often stood a bit apart from his own desire, acknowledging its lack of wisdom and moderation, and then plunging into it anyway. Just like a moth to a flame... Even songs with fairly overt messages become more than slogans, like the swoony “Boy with the Thorn in His Side” or the darkly glittering “Barbarism Begins at Home.”

This seven-disc set has all kinds of extra material: B-sides, Peel Sessions, live recordings, earlier remastered versions, and that one live album where Morrissey performs sick and sounds like he's just swallowed a beehive. It's got everything, which means yes, there's some dross. “Accept Yourself,” “Unloveable” and a few others—mostly toward the later years—fit the self-pity stereotype. But then there's the doomsday jubilee of “Ask” (“If it's not love then it's the bomb that will bring us together”), the gleeful rebellion of “Sheila Take a Bow,” the criminality of “Shoplifters of the World Unite” followed immediately by the reactionary satire of “Sweet and Tender Hooligan.”

 So yes: Play the Smiths when you're feeling miserable and in need of a good wallow. They'll cheer you right up.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Eve Tushnet blogs on the Catholic channel of Patheos.com.