Anyone considering spending over £200 on this collection of previously-released material will be well-acquainted enough with the music of The Smiths to wish being spared tedious personal observations regarding the songwriting prowess of Morrissey and Marr. So, to the hulking behemoth that is "The Complete Smiths" box set...
Happily, the remasters are a genuine improvement over the brickwalled disaster of 2008's The Sound Of The Smiths compilation. Perhaps inevitably, they are louder than the previous WEA editions, but they are also richer and tighter, with considerably more bottom end.
The BBC session tracks on "Hatful Of Hollow" are particularly powerful. As trite as it sounds, listening to the newly-polished "What Difference Does It Make" or "Reel Around The Fountain" really is the nearest you will get to being in the same room as The Smiths. Yet perhaps the most revelatory of all the albums is "Strangeways Here We Come". The anaemic mastering of the previous CD issue is replaced by a beautifully open and solid soundstage which allows the final "rockier" incarnation of the band to shine through. "Death Of A Disco Dancer", "I Started Something..." and "Last Night I Dreamt..." are especially authoritative.
But it's not all bombast. A myriad of subtler details emerge time and again across these albums. Marr's fingerpicking on the achingly beautiful acoustic version of "Back To The Old House" has never sounded so crystalline. The synthesized strings throughout "The Queen Is Dead" now have considerably more depth. It's thrilling to hear tracks you've listened to for so many years suddenly offer up a wealth of secrets.
The slight downside, to these ears, is a certain over-emphasis on the higher frequencies. I found this particularly noticeable on the eponymous debut, where Mike Joyce's hi-hats sound quite shrill. This is also evident on other "bright" tracks such as "I Want The One I Can't Have" and "Cemetry Gates". These CDs are not brickwalled to death but could have been allowed a little more room to breathe. Ultimately, though, the improvements will likely be enough of a trade-off for many listeners, this one included.
To the rest...
The mini-vinyl CD replicas restore the original album artwork for the first time, including the inner slip-cases, original front cover stickers and the free poster issued with "Rank". They are not quite as well rendered or solidly constructed as similar Japanese mini vinyls. Typically with these scaled-down editions, text size can be comically small, leaving many of the lyrics inidicipherable. Those minor caveats aside, these are a vast improvement over the nasty old plastic CD cases with the cropped artwork. The gatefold editions of "Hatful Of Hollow", "The Queen Is Dead", "Louder Than Bombs" and "Rank" are especially wonderful. The discs themselves replicate the original vinyl labels.
My turntable is currently in storage, so I cannot comment on the sound of the accompanying vinyls. However, I have thoroughly enjoyed poring over the artwork and lyrics (readable here!) in their original format whilst listening to the CDs. These LPs will be given a thorough spin once my turntable is up and running. Likewise with the 7" singles: as someone who was too young to buy these first time around, it's great to now own a complete set (including imports), which the earlier vinyl collection
singularly failed to deliver. They have all been replicated splendidly, right down to the cryptic messages scrawled into the run-out grooves.
There are glossy 12" art cards of each album cover, presumably for framing. These are entirely pointless, as is the poster of Jurgen Vollmer's cover photograph, which is unlikely to be hung on many walls lest it degrade. The accompanying booklet is a rather flimsy concert-program affair with perfunctory notes by Sire Records' Seymour Stein, music journalist Lois Wilson, and endnotes by Engineers Stephen Street and Grant Showbiz. A hardback book would not have been too much to ask for in its place.
"The Complete Picture" DVD is the same bog-standard video retrospective which has been available for years and offers nothing more than even the ancient VHS edition. The flimsy slip case holder looks like a free DVD bundled in with a Sunday Supplement. Highly disappointing.
Of course, this box is not entirely "complete"; there are no CD versions of a small number of 12"-only B-Sides like "Jeane" or "The Draize Train". There are also no rarities. However, every essential release is included, and refurbished in a highly satisfactory manner. It could also be argued that the inclusion of rarities on such a limited edition would have provoked just as much ire from certain sections of The Smiths' fanbase.
Ultimately, this box set will be of particular delight to those obsessive fans whom, through accidents of birth, missed these releases first time around and had to make do with badly cropped artwork and the thin sound of early '90s CD issues. This is a magnificent housing for the music and art of this incredible band.