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The Smiths – “Strangeways, Here We Come” (1987)

September 22, 2013

[Album 239/1001]Smiths_-_Strangeways_here_we_come

Objectivity, see ya later!

My vision is to keep my favourite 10 albums or so from the list until the end of the project, for albums 992-1001.  Although The Smiths are indisputably my favourite band by any internationally recognized measurement system, “Strangeways…” would probably be my third favourite Smiths record.  It currently doesn’t crack my top 10 albums (though it’s not far off) and since the album title quotes count as punctuation, I now have an excuse to review!

Side one:

1. A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours – A terrific opener and a bold statement.  Johnny Marr’s response to all the compliments about his guitar playing?  Open the record with this piano-driven tune without a single guitar track.

2. I Started Something I Couldn’t FInish – Time for glam.  The Smiths will forever be known as a ‘guitar band’ but Andy Rourke’s bass & Mike Joyce’s drums provided anything but a replaceable rhythm section.  I especially like Rourke’s entry here.

3. Death of a Disco Dancer – Morrissey’s piano debut.  In the D major walkdown tradition of Dear Prudence, the album’s second longest track is also its finest.  The closing 2 minutes are delightfully chaotic.

4. Girlfriend in a Coma – Beautiful upstrokes & string swoops, macabre lyrics, yet another Smiths Master Class in contrast!

5. Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One Before – I enjoy the disarming of potential critics.  “Oh here goes Moz, moaning again…”  A strong side one closer and it appears I’m not the only one who enjoys playing this on guitar.  Here’s an under-rehearsed but fun cover courtesy of Noel Gallagher & half of Coldplay:

Side two:

6. Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me – You’re doing something right if Andre 3000 says he wished he wrote this song.  One of the songs that signposts the direction the group might have taken if only…

7. Unhappy Birthday – Nice acoustic guitars, not Morrissey’s strongest lyric sheet, supposedly the acoustic route was another path Marr was interested in pursuing.

8. Paint a Vulgar Picture – I absolutely adore the key changes.  Not usually one to jump into the spotlight, Marr leaps out front & centre with a nice, if rare, guitar solo.  This might have been the record’s best song, were it not for the uncomfortably prophetic line, “Reissue! Repackage! Repackage!”  The (evergrowing) list of Smiths & Morrissey best of/most of compilations is staggering and makes Morrissey’s industry criticism here seem a little hollow in hindsight .  While I approve of just about anything that leads people to the band, there’s simply no substitute for the proper studio albums.

9. Death At One’s Elbow – Perhaps the reason I don’t have a Smiths record in my all-time top 5 is because they typically included a late album track like this.  Lightweight, rockabilly, instantly forgettable.  Such filler was often sandwiched between masterpieces, but filler all the same.

10. I Won’t Share You – When The Smiths broke up just prior to the release of Strangeways, this was one of the songs fans turned to for answers.  This and the b-side of the Girlfriend in a Coma single, I Keep Mine Hidden, are widely considered to be about Morrissey’s relationship with Johnny Marr.  No Mike Joyce on this track alas, but there is some nice mandolin work and the sentiment is perhaps an appropriate note on which to end their studio album career.

If you are a fan of the group, I practically insist you pick up Simon Goddard’s book The Songs That Saved Your Life for a fascinating look at their turbulent & glorious five years.

I could go on (endlessly!) but in the interest of brevity, I’ll wrap it up: though their name was intentionally common, there will never be another band quite as extraordinary as The Smiths.

From → 1980s

  1. I think Paint a Vulgar Picture is my favourite all-time Smith tune. Best line: “…extra track and a tacky badge.” And nothing beats Moz singing the final, “At the record company meeting, on their hands, AT LAST, a dead star!!” Dripping with contempt.

    • dripping with contempt – I will be borrowing that expression! It is a sad reality when the dead star is a marketing opportunity.

      • Glad you like it. Don’t forget to cite me as the author! Just kidding!

  2. Your passion for The Smiths makes me want to like them more, but I’ve never been able to embrace Morrissey’s voice. I love the music and I think Johnny Marr is a brilliant guitar player, but I’ve only ever been able to moderately enjoy their records because of the vocals. This is one of two Smiths LPs I own, and I will definitely give it a spin soon based on your post. I also have “The Queen Is Dead” and CD compilation a friend made for me. I’ll keep trying, and maybe one day I’ll “get it.”

    • You’re not alone – but there’s hope! The lead singer of Franz Ferdinand wrote the foreword to a Smiths special issue magazine I have. He talked about loving the intro riff from ‘What difference does it make’ but then turning it off whenever the vocals came in. Eventually he started loving the voice and instead of it being a deterrent, that’s the part he looked forward to.

      I’ll be the first to admit Morrissey’s not an amazing vocalist – most songs have a limited range of notes. I’d argue his strength is as a frontman – with the Smiths, I can’t picture anyone else delivering ‘girlfriend in a coma’ and it somehow working.

      I have a theory that the great frontmen are often polarizing – we’ve discussed Mr. Vedder & Van Morrison and I think the true greats can’t please everyone. If a singer does, I’m not sure the performance really rises above agreeable. So by you not enjoying Morrissey’s voice I’m hoping that supports my theory somewhat!

      I didn’t used to be a fan of Neil Young’s voice at all but the further I get into this project, the more I realize his voice ‘fits’ the context of the songs. Still not my favourite vocalist, but now I definitely get the appeal a lot more than I used to.

  3. Nice review, thanks. I have to admit that this is my favourite Smtihs album. While I love Queen is Dead (see the review on my own blog for my thoughts) SHWC feels like the band were moving up a level which sometimes makes it all the more painful to listen to. What might have been, eh?

    • And I believe Johnny Marr & Morrissey share your opinion about SHWC – Morrissey I think said it best. Something along the lines of, “The Queen Is Dead is not our masterpiece. I should know. I was there. I supplied the sandwiches.”
      And agreed re: the what might have been, though there’s a part of me that appreciates that their career is forever incomplete. A pretty much perfect discography, no Christmas album!

  4. Bob smith permalink

    Is Johnny Marr purposely playing out of tune on death of a disco dancer? Give it a listen and you decide.

    • I’ll have to re-listen & report back – Morrissey’s piano work on that is definitely something else!

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