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January 14, 2005

King to its Queen, Smiths' last takes crown for mope

If you have only a little familiarity with the Smiths, you probably know them as one of the '80s most celebrated rock acts, a highly influential band spawned from the ashes of English post-punk and New Wave. You might have seen them on one of those "Top 100 of All Time" lists that magazines like Rolling Stone and NME seem to put together every year, with the albums The Queen is Dead and Meat is Murder probably charting somewhere near the middle. Queen is a no-brainer; since the Smiths were more of a singles band, their third album was really the only one to achieve a solid sense of cohesiveness. From the meticulously layered acoustic guitars of "Bigmouth Strikes Again" to Morrissey's impassioned croon on the classic "There is a Light that Never Goes Out," The Queen is Dead easily establishes itself as the band's sonic peak as well as one of the great rock records.

Ultimately, what Queen documents best is the band's studio prowess—their ability to escalate their sound to larger-than-life proportions. As influential as the band's style became, it is unfortunate that their technical ability sometimes overshadows their songwriting. To showcase these talents, I would choose, rather than the often canonized Meat is Murder, the band's final album, 1987's Strangeways, Here We Come.

Allegedly recorded during the deterioration of Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr's relationship (the band broke up shortly after its release), Strangeways finds the Smiths pushing towards even more dramatic extremes. The opening number "A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours" begins with simple piano chords and a steady snare roll. "I am the ghost of Troubled Joe," Morrissey sings in a ghostly echo, "hung by his pretty white neck/ Some 18 months ago." By the time the song finds its chorus, it's blossomed into a fuller sound, backed by Marr's staccato guitar line and Andy Rourke's plodding bass ("Oh but don't mention love/ I'd hate the strain of the pain again").

"I Started Something I Couldn't Finish" easily earns the title of one of the band's great pop songs and finds Morrissey at his humorously self-deprecating best ("Hair brushed and parted/ Typical me, typical me, typical me"). "Death of a Disco Dancer" achieves its goal of sounding eerie over a backdrop of scratched strings, before Marr's heavily delayed guitar washes over everything in its path. The song's cynical closing line is perhaps one of the best in the Smiths' catalog: "Love, peace and harmony/ Oh very nice, very nice, very nice/ But maybe in the next world." "Girlfriend in a Coma" is truly a classic, epitomizing the band's ability to juxtapose up-tempo guitar pop with morbid lyrics. Over the jingle of sunny chords Morrissey asks "Would you please let me see her?/ Do you really think she'll pull through?"

The record's second half opens with the landmark "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me," perhaps the most melodramatic of all of the Smiths' songs. The song opens with only minor piano chords and a crowd of voices, building to the two-minute mark where it ruptures under its own weight into an orchestral swirl. Still, Morrissey's voice remains in command as he confesses, "Last night I felt/ Real arms around me." It's almost mind-boggling to imagine how many lonely teenagers must have found empathy in Moz's self-pitying lyrics (I can count one from where I sit).

However, in some ways the following track, "Unhappy Birthday," is the real crown jewel of self-loathing. "Loved and lost/ And some may say/ ‘When usually it's nothing, surely you're happy it should be this way?'" sings Morrissey, over a bridge of bouncy acoustic pop. "I said, ‘no'/ And then I shot myself/ So drink, drink, drink and be ill tonight." The record closes in a similar vein with the stripped-down lament of "I Won't Share You." "The note I wrote as she read/ She said, ‘Has the Perrier gone straight to my head?/ Or is life sick and cruel, instead?'" Morrissey seals the deal with the lesson, "Life tends to come and go/ That's OK, as long as you know."

While Strangeways falls just short of the singular vision of The Queen is Dead, it still contains some of the best songs the Smiths ever wrote, while serving as the final document of a band at the top of its form. Perhaps as new listeners find the Smiths, revisionist critics will reevaluate Strangeways and recognize it for the classic it is. As Morrissey invites us in "Paint a Vulgar Picture," "Reissue, repackage, repackage!/ Reevaluate the songs!"