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The Smiths at their most raw.
on 2 August 2004
Upon first listen I dismissed The Smiths as a distinctly average album by their standards and in comparison to the heights of The Queen is Dead. However, this album above all others has been the biggest grower on me over the course of say a year, and songs that once seemed a little tuneless and overly meandering (Still Ill, Reel Around the Fountain) and hardly up to the pop catchiness of later albums are somehow now more powerful and beautiful than those songs I'd be singing along to as soon as I stuck The Queen is Dead on, or Strangeways Here We Come.
The Smiths is an album that takes a touch of perseverence - perhaps due in part to the legendary under-production, done on only £20,000 after a less than satisfactory effort by Troy Tate. As much as the production is murky and often leaden, it has a charm which lends itself to the sheer darkness and gravity of many of the songs' subjects and lyrics - Morrissey here is exploring child abuse (The Hand That Rocks The Cradle), serial child murder (Suffer Little Children), homosexuality (Hand in Glove) and raw sexuality in general (Reel Around the Fountain). And he handles them with the subtelty only a master poet, backed up by Marr's mesmerising guitarwork, could.
Highlights of the album include "Still Ill", a nostalgic look back at Morrissey's experiences growing up in Manchester, filled with disolution and that wonderful despairing lyric "Am I Still Ill" with the grave feeling of prelongued sickness a terrifying thought when used as an analogy of life. "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" is a mesmeric lullaby with a hideous implication of child abuse mixed with terrifying images of shadows looming eerily over a child's bed - the feeling amplified no end by Johnny Marr's subtle and hypnotic guitar hooks.
"This Charming Man" was not included on the original release of the album, and doesn't really fit in with the album as a whole especially in its placing and somewhat more sheeny production. It is, however, a fantastic song and represents a lovely copmbination of catchy guitar and simple yet effective Morrissey lyrics. Indeed, along with "Hand in Glove" (a better version appears on Hatful of Hollow but there isn't too big a difference) these two are really the only true "pop" songs on what is a very indie album.
Ultimately The Smiths represents a darker and rawer side of The Smiths that they never really returned to. Marr's guitarwork is murkier and subtler than on later albums and Morrissey never revisits lyrics as risky and grave as those on "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" or "Suffer Little Children" (a song about the Moors Murders which just about manages to pull off such a serious subject with enough subtelty and grace). It took a long time for the album to grow on me but I now rank it a very close second to The Queen is Dead among The Smith's albums.