The Smiths
Band Rating: 4

  • The Smiths
  • Hatful Of Hollow
  • Meat Is Murder
  • The Queen Is Dead
  • Strangeways, Here We Come

    The Smiths (1984)
    Page Rating: 8
    Overall Rating: 12

    Alright, let's get the unpleasantness out of the way. Most of the album's best tracks resurfaced on their subsequent release, and in generally superior incarnations at that. My first exposure to these tracks came from the latter album, so naturally I was disappointed when I got to these versions, a reaction that severely marred my enjoyment of their debut. Fortunately, time revealed that these renditions are sufficiently different, and sufficiently well done, that they can be appreciated on their own terms. The overlap is still an issue, exacerbated by the dearth of material that isn't redundant, but in the end even that deficiency can be overlooked as well.

    And why can it be overlooked? Because this is a brilliant debut, that's why. The Smiths are famous for the unique sound they infuse into all their material, a fusion of Morrissey's beautiful voice and a lush instrumental backing helmed by Johnny Marr's guitar; even in their embryonic stages this sound was largely in place. No archetypal insecure beginnings or a desultory search for a musical identity; the Smiths knew exactly what their strengths were and what they wanted to accomplish, and they succeed with flying colors.

    The signature Smiths mood is suffused with all their material, pervading both the music and the lyrics; for the uninitiated, this is an atmosphere of bleakness and despair that is inherent to their work, a quality that would later brand Morrissey with an irrevocable stigma as a purveyor of 'music for depressed people.'

    Their first three singles can be found here in all their glory: the unforgettable ode to homosexuality Hand In Glove (how can you possibly forget a song with lyrics about the sun shining out of a man's rectum?), the gorgeous Charming Man and the dark horse of the album and a personal favorite of mine, What Difference Does It Make, with its catchy riff and irresistible vocal melody. Admittedly the glory of this exceptional triumvirate is diluted by their recurrence on Hatful Of Hollow, but at least this rendition of Charming Man is rather different from the more mellow interpretation offered on that album.

    Don't dismiss this album as superfluous, however, or as a historical curiosity; while the bulk of its material is usurped by its successor there're still plenty of essential Smiths classics to be found, at least for any true fan of the group. I can see a casual fan passing this album by, but no genuine fan can be without songs like the elegant, haunting and tenebrous Pretty Girls Make Graves.

    So I suppose in the end this is an album for hardcore fans. The situation is akin to the bane of hardcore music fans, greatest hits compilations. Yes, the best tracks here can be acquired on HoH; but, as is the case with comps, they neglect to include a number of very worthwhile tracks. This album is by no means extraneous, and is a necessary buy for all Smiths fans.

    It's rare that a group emerge with such a confident, well defined sound; the Smiths debut is gorgeous, self-assured and highly ambitious, not to mention one of the most influential albums of the era. With such a diminutive discography every drop of sound by the Smiths is an invaluable treasure.

    Hatful Of Hollow (1984)
    Page Rating: 9
    Overall Rating: 13

    It may seem absurd to award such a high rating to what is, in effect, a parasite on the debut album, educing most of its strengths from its predecessor's merits. Surely any album could artificially inflate its quality by stealing the best material from another album. Is that an honest way to achieve quality?

    Whether it's an honest method or not, it works. The older material manifests itself in the form of various radio sessions derived from around the period of the debut, and they're of exceptional quality. Perhaps it's simply because I heard them first, but for me the majority of them surpass the originals.

    But I would never bestow such a high grade solely on the basis of a group cannibalizing their backlog. The true brilliance of the album arrives in the form of a collection of excellent originals.

    William It Was Really Nothing was their follow-up single after the debut's tracks had run their course. It's notable not only for its extreme brevity but also for, well, being a typical great Smiths song, with all the innate connotations therein. Great vocals, pretty music, and a wonderful conciseness imbued by its short length.

    It's overshadowed, however, by the track somewhat questionably relegated to the role of acting as its B-side. When Is Now is almost an experiment in dark psychedelia, and is unlike any other song in the Smiths canon. Featuring ominous astral noises, one of Marr's best riffs and some of the worst lyrics ever ('I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does'), which I really hope are intentionally bad. The album is worth it just for this track, if only to prove that the Smiths were capable of more versatility than is customarily attributed to them.

    The strength of the new tracks really makes this much more than a compilation or cheap cash-in on the success of the debut. This is probably as good a place as any for a casual newbie to start with this group as any; it exhibits all of the group's strengths in an enjoyable, accessible and easily digestible form. As for the hardcore fans who'll scoff and dismiss this as a comp, one must understand that tracks like When Is Now cannot be omitted from your Smiths library. Like it or not, they've found a way to hook both hardcore and casual listeners; but trust me, neither will be disappointed.

    Meat Is Murder (1985)
    Page Rating: 8
    Overall Rating: 12

    For their second album proper, the Smiths endeavored to evade stagnation by injecting a potent dose of diversity into their work, experimenting with everything from rockabilly to hard rock. They never engage in these stylistic flirtations at the expense of their artistic identity, however; they adapt each genre to their trademark sound, preserving the image they so meticulously fashioned for themselves on their eponymous debut.

    Marr truly distinguishes himself here, conjuring an array of unique guitar tones and stellar riffs. Marr is far too often overshadowed by the larger than life Morrissey, which it truly a pity, as the former is just as integral to the Smiths sound as the infamous front-man. This album should be ample proof that Marr is by no means a fragment of a mere backing band, but rather Morrissey's equal in shaping the group's music.

    The centerpiece of the album is the title track, a didactic dirge that manages to sound haunting and almost hypnotic despite its incessant preachiness. The subject matter is so overblown that it often descends into the realm of unintentional humor, but it's sufficiently well crafted that it remains engaging throughout its six minute running time.

    When Is Now appears in a reworked, renamed form, slightly inferior to the original but still quite strong. It's a natural fit on an album designed to exhibit the versatility of the group, an apt demonstration that the group can tackle a wide range of styles and still retain their musical identity.

    The quality of the other tracks is consistently strong, with nothing that would really constitute filler. It's enough of a departure from their debut that nothing sounds like a retread, with the emphasis on Marr's guitar adding another side to the band's sound.

    For the most part Morrissey sounds comparatively restrained, with few songs sounding like backdrops for his vocal showcases. While Morrissey's vocals nearly define the Smiths for some people, it's nice to have an album where he doesn't eclipse his bandmates, and truly sounds like just a member of a rock group.

    While Morrissey would return to the forefront this is a nice change of pace from the usual Smiths sound, with them truly trying, and succeeding, at creating something simultaneously different yet true to their essence.

    The Queen Is Dead (1986)
    Page Rating: 10
    Overall Rating: 14

    While it's something of a cliché, I have to agree that this is the Smiths' peak, and one of the greatest albums of the decade. The Smiths' have refined their sound to perfection while still remembering to add some diversity to the proceedings, alternating between Morrissey vocal spotlights, Marr rockers and whimsical interludes. Morrissey in particular has never sounded better, and this album is indeed his crowning moment in the group.

    The brilliance of the album isn't limited to the songs, but rather extends to the structure of the CD itself. The track order is absolutely perfect, never overwhelming the listener with one kind of sound. By staggering the more weighty tracks their potency is maximized and the listener isn't worn out. Songs like Frankly Mr. Shankly and Vicar In A Tu Tu function as breathers for the listener, and enable them to better digest the blasts of catharsis like There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.

    Highlights include the title track, with its plethora of vocal hooks and infamous regicidal lyrics, and the vicious Big Mouth Strikes Again, with its moody guitars and irresistible alternating vocal melodies. The previously mentioned There Is A Light That Never Goes Out is one of the many moments of transcendental beauty on the album, Cemetry Gates is both dark and genial with one of the stranger yet no less catchy vocal hooks one is apt to hear ('Keats and Yeats are on your side') and the lighter segues are supremely enjoyable and by no means throwaways despite their simple nature.

    I Know It's Over and Never Had No One Ever are more chances for Morrissey to shine with his devastating vocals, and Boy With The Thorn In His Side is a moment of respite with its pretty melody and vocals.

    The strangest, yet somehow brilliant, choice in structuring the album was to end it with the bizarre and hilarious Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others. One might question why an overall highly serious artistic statement would culminate with an odd, slightly juvenile joke, but somehow it works perfectly, diluting the extreme emotional devastation you've just been subjected to, providing an ounce of relief for the worn out listener. tQiD is an emotionally exhausting listen, and this ending helps rejuvenate the ragged listener and leaves him with a smile on his face.

    As I said, this is an emotionally exhausting listen, but one of the most rewarding ones of all. This album presents the Smiths at their peak, with every element that made them a great group fully represented. Morrissey is that star of the show, but Marr is by no means kept in the shadows; while this isn't a breakout performance for him the way MiM was, he backs Morrissey with extreme professionalism, without which the album would never work.

    Every track is brilliant, and every track adds to the album, the latter being an even more impressive accomplishment and one that few records can boast. Each is placed so that it can be fully appreciated and have the most impact on the listener, and together they evoke myriad diverse emotional reactions from the listener. The Smiths are a deeply emotional band, and this is their most emotionally penetrating album.

    What that amounts to is that someone looking for a light listen should stay away. This probably isn't a good starting point for the band (though it was mine); HoH would probably be more conducive to the initiation of a newbie, as it's a more accessible listen on the whole, and less emotionally devastating.

    But this album is a must buy for any fan of rock music. The Smiths were a great, seminal group, and this album depicts them at the height of their power. This is the fulfillment of all the potential they demonstrated on their earlier albums, and became a peak that they would never reach again, either with their subsequent swansong or in Morrissey's solo career.

    Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)
    Page Rating: 9
    Overall Rating: 13

    SHWC had the grave misfortune of following the Smiths' magnum opus, thus being condemned to endless unfair and inevitably uncharitable comparisons. tQiD had refined the Smiths' formula to perfection, leaving a modicum of room for growth or expansion. The only remedy would be a complete overhaul of the sound, a step Morrissey and company were unwilling to take. tQiD was an unforgettable, magical experience, whereas SHWC is merely another album made according to the tried and true Smiths formula, something that couldn't but be construed as a monumental copout by much of the fanbase.

    What this disillusioned and embittered collective overlook, however, is that the Smiths formula still had plenty of mileage left in it and the group was still operating at a creative high, leading to an extremely good, if somewhat familiar and predictable, album, one that any group would feel comfortable to have as their swansong.

    The playing is tight throughout, never betraying the backstage tension that led to the group's disintegration and Marr resigning before the album was even released. The interplay between Morrissey's vocals and Marr's guitar remains as effective as ever, never sounding forced or strained. On the whole, the situation can be equated to the dynamics of the Abbey Road recording; while the band may have been at each others' throats, the moment the tapes began rolling they became utter professionals.

    Even if it breaks little ground the album can't be accused of stagnation. The Smiths formula sounds as fresh as ever, and the group never relies on their trademark style alone to carry them, always concocting clever riffs or vocal melodies for every song.

    Each track delivers, even the oft maligned Death Of A Disco Dancer; the cause for that particular song's vilification eludes me, as it's a highly effective dark, haunting track, with little to incur one's enmity.

    The other tracks bring few surprises, but are all nonetheless well crafted songs in a style the Smiths had pioneered and perfected. Had the Smiths continued beyond this point they may have been in danger of degenerating to the point of becoming self-parodies, but for the time being there was nothing that demanded either a total reinvention of the group or a duplication of tQiD. The Smiths were entitled to coast on their success for a short while, and it's to their credit that, even on a retread, they never neglected the accomplished songwriting skills that had brought them to where they were and made them more than a gimmick band with a unique sound.

    The other factor that skews mainstream perception of this album is the predictable tendency to define it by its role as the band's last album. In my opinion that's a foolish approach to critique, but nevertheless it seems to me as apt a swansong as any, an album by a group who had discovered their strengths and built their album accordingly. SHWC exhibits every facet that made the Smiths such a brilliant and distinctive group, omitting any flaws through their years of polishing and honing their craft. Any time a group chooses to simply emphasize their established strong points at the expense of experimentation they're immediately assailed as being too conservative, but it wouldn't make sense for a final album to make drastic changes. Rather, it presents the group as who they were, in their most refined form.