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Stop me if you think you've heard this one before...,
This review is from: Strangeways, Here We Come (Audio CD)
Released in 1987 following a particularly protracted period of emotional and professional turmoil between visionaries Morrissey and Marr, Strangeways Here We Come was largely written off as something of a creative miss-step following the dizzying eclecticism of 1985's classic, The Queen is Dead... but why? One complaint at the time was that Johnny Marr's trademark jangly guitar sound had been pushed to the background, in favour of more professional instrumental arrangements and contemporary production techniques. However, one look at the credit sheet here will disprove this theory immediately, with Marr acting as both the musical arranger and the co-producer of the record (alongside Morrissey and Stephen Street), as well as playing all the guitar parts and the piano.
So, if anything, this gives the record an even tighter musical sound that is far more progressive and imaginative than any of the Smiths albums that came before, with both Morrissey and Marr operating at the height of their respective abilities throughout. Because of this, the album has a much thicker, more morose sound than the previous records, managing to seem both downbeat and reflective, without coming across as atmospherically suffocating (see Meat is Murder for details)... take the opener for instance. A Rush and A Push and the Land is ours remains, not only one of the best Smiths titles in the world ever!! but is also, without a doubt, one of their greatest ever compositions. Beginning with a distorted yelp that transforms seamlessly into Morrissey's Gregorian-like chant of "I am the ghost of troubled Joe...", with the rolling piano and foreboding percussion welling in the background, and then... we're off, "URGH-rush and a push and the land that we stand on is ours, it has been before and it shall be now...".
Morrissey's voice is as charismatic and idiosyncratic as ever, as he croons with abandon of how "people who are uglier than you and I, they take what they need and then leave"- which, when looked at within the context of the social and economic background of the late 1980's was a bold and satirical statement to make. Both, I Started Something I Couldn't Finish and Death of a Disco Dancer employ almost-narrative tales of despair, with the former benefiting from Marr's distorted rock-guitar and the pounding drums of Mike Joyce, whilst the latter has a great Andy Rourke bass-line and a wonderfully languid delivery from Morrissey. These tracks lead us seamlessly into that classic single, Girlfriend in a Coma, which continues the bouncy melancholic sound of tracks one and two... whilst also taking a cue from some of those previous Smiths classics, like Panic, Ask and This Charming Man. Morrissey's lyrics are both delightful and troubling as he opines "there were times when I could have murdered her... but you know, I would hate anything to happen to her"... whilst simultaneously making light of both the wild satire and self-deprecating melodrama of Douglas Coupland's similarly titled book.
Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before is more of that classic, jangle-pop sound, with some multi-layered backing instrumentation and great percussion... whilst the classic Last Night I Dreamt that Somebody Loved Me opens with a cacophony of dense sound-effects and chattering, angry voices, before Morrissey erupts into life, singing the central refrain over a bed of writhing guitars and pianos ("no hope, no harm... just another false alarm"). Unhappy Birthday is something of a fun novelty, with a classic Smiths chord structure and some good lyrics- but, cant help but pale in comparison to the songs that sandwich it on the album... Paint a Vulgar Picture is next, and remains one of the all time genius Smiths songs, with Morrissey attacking record company execs and shameless hangers on ('sycophantic slags'), whilst Marr, Joyce and Rourke create a great backing rhythm. Whilst the repeat chorus of "re-issue, re-package, re-package... re-evaluate the songs" has subsequently taken on a further degree of irony, when we consider the almost endless array of Smiths' compilations, bootlegs and 'best of's' now available on the market... and sadly, THIS was your life!!
Death at One's Elbow is another song that I'm not entirely sold on, being yet another continuation of Morrissey's desire to create a pure rockabilly track... though, that said, it does lead us nicely into the wilting and ethereal final moment, I Won't Share You. A classic example of Morrissey's strength when it comes to those heartfelt lyrics of despair, backed exclusively by Marr on a gentle acoustic guitar. Along with Paint a Vulgar Picture, Big Mouth Strikes Again, Reel Around the Fountain and There is a Light that Never Goes Out, it remains one of my very favourite Smiths' moments ("I'll see you somewhere... I'll see you sometime..."). Sadly, this would be the last album ever released by the Smiths, with Marr leaving shortly after its completion and Morrissey calling it a day soon after that. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see the negative press and the difficulties surrounding the album's production as the primary reason why 'Strangeways...' failed to garner the same kind of acclaim as the record that came before. However...
As far as I'm concerned, Strangeways Here We Come is easily as good as The Queen is Dead, and remains one of my favourite albums to listen to when at the height of despair!! Marr's approach to instrumentation was - at this stage - unrivalled, with the sonic horizons created here now sounding a million-miles away from anything else being created at the time... whilst Morrissey's lyrics remain as witty, cutting and insightful as they ever did, just as that iconic voice still manages to resonate with all the hurt and dejection of an entire generation.