Top critical review
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on 9 May 2003
I was so looking forward to this book, a track-by-track exploration of 1980s indie favourites The Smiths in the style of Ian MacDonald’s excellent study of The Beatles, 'Revolution in the Head'. For a Smiths devotee the prospect is irresistible.
The introduction promises an unfolding narrative, “the story of The Smiths music”, but despite dealing with each Smiths track in chronological order, it quickly becomes apparent that the author is severely over-reaching himself. The promised “story” never quite materialises and despite the solid structure that one would expect to be imposed by the chronological framework (i.e. the track by track commentary) we get rather than a steady progression through the Smith’s catalogue, instead a series of queasy lurches. The ultimate result is that even for someone reasonably familiar with The Smiths work confusion starts to set in.
Contextualisation, for example, is applied randomly, seemingly as an afterthought. To cite one minor case, Shelagh Delaney is mentioned many times. This is to be expected as she provided significant lyrical inspiration for the Moz, but it is only in the final reference to her that we get a very brief description of who she was, and her background and importance, precisely the sort of information that should have been included the first time she is mentioned.
Aiming at the trenchant style of 'Revolution in the Head', Goddard just doesn’t have the chops to pull it off. 'Songs That Saved Your Life' is riddled with mangled syntax, tortuous sentences, needless orotundity, unintentional ambiguity, non sequiturs and malapropisms. Because of the shaky command of language and construction the reader feels like they are stumbling about in a fog which occasionally clears but which soon closes in again. This seems doubly disappointing in a book about such clever and witty user of language as Morrissey, where one would hope that a commentator on his work would show the same care and precision with the mother tongue.
To be fair, Goddard undeniably knows his stuff, and when dealing with the technical, factual, and musical stuff he is quite informative, though hampered by his style. However where MacDonald’s analyses and explications of the finished Beatles tracks were intriguing and fascinating, this book’s attempts at the same for The Smiths’ songs are laboured and unenlightening. For example, this comment about The Smiths first single: “Ultimately Hand in Glove is the ballad of a helpless loner feigning to extol the virtues of a chance encounter with a false sense of superiority in itself a mask for all manner of emotional handicaps”. The words ‘elegant’ and ‘lucid’ do not spring to mind when reading such a sentence.
This is quite clearly the sort of thing a halfway decent editor should have spotted and indeed a halfway decent editor could easily have rescued this book. Goddard is a writer for Uncut magazine and there his articles and reviews are absolutely fine, being pithy and informative, which suggests that his metier is the short and snappy format of magazine writing rather than the full length survey. Sadly this remains a frustrating reading experience, all the more annoying because of the great opportunity that has been missed.