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Class ?

Main Category: Mope Rock
Also applicable: Pop Rock
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: --------



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Year Of Release: 1984
Overall rating =

Funny - they're all hot about the lyrics? With THAT melancholic monotonous mumble-mumble?

Best song: whichever's got the loudest jangle. Ha! Ha! Gotcha! They ALL have the loudest jangle!

Track listing: 1) Reel Around The Fountain; 2) You've Got Everything Now; 3) Miserable Lie; 4) Pretty Girls Make Graves; 5) The Hand That Rocks The Cradle; 6) This Charming Man; 7) Still Ill; 8) Hand In Glove; 9) What Difference Does It Make; 10) I Don't Owe You Anything; 11) Suffer Little Children.

It's time the tale were told of how Steve took a John and he made him waste his talent on Steve's pseudo-poetic mopey garbage. Fifteen minutes with you? I don't think so...

Okay, it just seemed like a friendly enough way to begin a review. Forget it. The important thing is: when it comes to the Smiths, just as well as when it comes to their three-letter-long cultural equivalent on the other side of the Atlantic, you have to separate historical importance from timeless value. Me, I do not like to judge things based on their historical importance alone, no matter what you may have heard about me from the average Beatles-hater. And in the case of The Smiths, historical importance often substitutes the real nature of things. The Smiths did not really invent anything; there is very little on this album that a knowledgeable, jaded listener could have found radically new in 1984. From the Byrds to Joy Division, all of these guys' influences are out there, down to every tiny hole in every dirty sock. Yet it so happened that in 1984, nobody was really occupying these niches - and so The Smiths provided a whole generation of British teens with a new set of fresh, young, and highly sensitive idols.

Now that the dust has settled, I find it sort of curious what all the fuss was about in the first place. The funniest thing, perhaps, is that Morrissey and Marr weren't at all radical in their approach. So this album is all guitar-based, yet the band that is closest to them in atmosphere is still... Depeche Mode, and not just because of the overall gloomy mode, but even down to certain production values and singing aspects. (In fact, I so can see 'Miserable Lie' as a candidate for inclusion onto any of DM's 1982-86 run of Goth-Synth artpieces that it's not even funny). Another strange aspect of the album is that, at first, it does not at all seem involving. The songs just sort of pass you by, with melodies lost in the steady, even production, and Morrissey's usually calm, unnerving delivery putting you off the track every time you sniff something that might look like a chorus. Yet it doesn't have the in-yer-face humbleness of early R.E.M., either. In fact, it's pretty hard to put in words the things it does have.

Well, okay. It has Johnny Marr. And Johnny Marr has what could easily be the best "soft" guitar tone of the Eighties. On here, it's very similar to the classic Byrds jangle, but somewhat thinner and a wee bit more ethereal. The only other Eighties' guitarist whom I remember using the exact same tone is the Cocteau Twins' Robin Guthrie, but the Twins never took that guitar sound centerstage (not to mention that they had quite a few other ones, whereas Marr always stubbornly sticks to one and the same, and hey, maybe we should thank him for that). And, uh, I can't even say that there's a whole bunch of ecstatic flabberty-jibberty-magnificious riffs to go along with that tone. But the playing is so clear and sharp and every note is imbued with so much feeling that you don't even need a "riff" in a true sense. I really don't know about the best song, but maybe the most beautiful moment on the entire record is the twenty opening seconds to 'The Hand That Rocks The Cradle' (before Morrissey starts singing - not that I dislike the singing, it just takes away from the playing), which is just one simple musical phrase repeated several times, but it's... well, it's got soul. And I'm old enough to have learned that very few things in this world of ours have one. These twenty seconds are one of those things.

I said Marr's tone is mostly similar on all these songs, but the mood of the tone, if there's any such thing, can vary. If you manage to find the button that puts you into Smith-mode (last time I looked, it was somewhere out there in the spleen area), you'll see that the record is really quite diverse. There's folk, there's pop, there's dance music, there's some rock'n'roll, there's ska, there's even some blues-rock around the edges. It just ends up being similar because, well, there's that button thing, meaning (a) the production is always the same and (b) Morrissey just isn't the kind of guy you'd expect to undergo a radical image transformation based on such silly things as "genre change". Rock or pop, folk or calypso, symphony or Beijing opera, this dude has an agenda of his own and he ain't gonna modify it for peanuts. You'll have to live with that, I'm afraid.

Now when it comes to the Smiths, it's always fashionable to analyze their lyrics, because, well, they're about child molestation and crap. I'm not gonna do that. Besides, the way I see it, all of the 'shocking' stuff in Morrissey's lyrics was never as important to him as writing endless odes to lost love and wallowing in self-pitying to the extent of making Pete Townshend look like Brian Johnson in comparison. Oh no, I'm not mocking or being snubby - he's a good lyricist, no doubt about that. But you know what? For such a remarkably good lyricist, he's got an even more remarkable way of mumbling through the words so that it's pretty goshdarn difficult to get anything without a lyrics sheet. Well, it's nowhere near as undecipherable as early R.E.M. records, I guess, but they do have this thing in common with Stipe - singing stuff that's supposed to be important but you can't really tell because you can't really hear.

Which, as far as I'm concerned, gives me a perfect excuse to forget about the lyrics and concentrate on subjective impressions. Summarizing the diversity of the record, I'd have to group all the songs into three categories: "romantic", "rocking", and "cheerfully upbeat" (don't forget we're still in Smith-mode, in which "cheerful" takes on quite a different, Smith-y, meaning). My favourite category? Well, I'm normally a "rocking" kind of guy, but while staying in Smith-mode, I'd still go for "romantic". The reasons are simple: this is the only mode in which Morrissey sounds fully adequate, and it's also the mode in which Marr's jangle is particularly... well, particularly jangly. Apart from 'The Hand That Rocks The Cradle', let's single out 'Reel Around The Fountain', which certainly may be a song about child molestation for all I know, but if so, it's the tenderest song about child molestation to have ever existed. And dreampop rarely gets dreamier (although it does sometimes get better) than 'Suffer Little Children', which not only gives Morrissey a chance to namedrop Manchester, but also gives Marr a chance to come up with a guitar melody as blissfully and impeccably weaved together as in a real good Lindsey Buckingham song (that's a compliment, in case you've just recently come from afar and do not know the way my mainstream ass feels about Fleetwood Mac).

The "rocking" mood of the band leaves something to be desired. Well, they do come up with really fierce, moody stuff like 'What Difference Does It Make', where Marr's treatment of the song as one of those desperate blues-rock shuffles helps a lot. But the "speed-rock" approach of 'Miserable Lie' is completely ruined by Morrissey's over-the-head delivery (first he sounds like Dave Gahan's twin brother, then lets everything sink deeper with goofy outbursts of paranoid falsetto - gotta give him his due for never getting out of key, though), and a couple tunes in the middle of the record also don't get enough rockin' convincibility at the expense of "romantic magic". Plus, I really don't need the dance punch of 'This Charming Man' ever since I got access to the Cure's 'Why Can't I Be You' - so it'd been released three years later, so it's still a much better song.

However, the "cheerfully upbeat" mood, that one I find really fine. When Marr drops the tinkle-jangle in favour of a "rockier" attitude, it may across as toothless, but the attempts at a power-poppier style are quite different. For instance, the guitar riff really helps a song like 'You've Got Everything Now', where the singing never really got elevated much higher than background noise substitute for me. The skaish chucka-chucka on 'Pretty Girls Make Graves' is also cute, and so is the overall punch of 'Hand In Glove' - especially with the nice added harmonica touch at the end which, for some reason, brings Beatles memories on my mind. Maybe it's the 'I'm A Loser' resemblance or something.

In the end what we're left with is a pretty good pop album - not a particularly mainstream one, seeing as how it's so tight to distinguish verse from chorus, but totally accessible all the same. These days, I can't imagine anybody building a pyramid around its holy remains, but supposedly if you had been there at the right time, you'd have been battling for the privilege to be among the first ones chained to the stone blocks. Well, leave it to Father Time to decide, I guess.


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