By Cole Altmayer, entertainment editor
The Smiths are a band very near and dear to my heart, and as one of my favorite rock groups of all time, they tend to fly under my radar when it comes to constructive criticism. The songwriting duo of lyricist Steven Patrick Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr are absolutely peerless in their genre of music. In their woefully brief five-year run as a band from 1982 to 1987, they released four albums without a single forgettable track between them.
These albums are like children to me. However, despite the insistency of every mother and father in the world, there is always a least favorite child.
The Smiths’ ugly duckling is “Strangeways, Here We Come,” their fourth and final album, which was released in 1987. Calling “Strangeways” ugly, however, has me feeling very conflicted. With high-spirited instrumentals, lyrics sharper than a scythe and more dynamic songwriting than their previous albums, it’s hard to call it a disappointment.
With “Strangeways,” The Smiths released one of the greatest albums of the 80s, yet the cracks began to show as inner tensions within the band began to enflame. However, the sorrowful goodbye we get on “Strangeways” makes it stand out as a flawed masterpiece on the tail end of a nearly flawless discography.
The opening track, “A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours,” is the only Smiths song that has Marr’s twinkling guitar tone nowhere to be found. While Marr’s guitar work is one of the defining traits of the band, “Rush and a Push” serves as proof that Morrissey and Marr are not using it as a crutch. It still sounds characteristic of The Smiths while being an extreme departure instrumentally, with an electric piano and marimba being the driving force of the song.
The dramatic high point of the album happens early, with the somber “Death of a Disco Dancer” beginning as a lurching, slow ballad with Morrissey’s elegant vocals coming to the forefront. Yet the song escalates with each repetition of a cynical mantra: “Love, peace and harmony… Very nice, very nice, very nice, but maybe in the next world.”
Eventually “Disco Dancer” becomes a crashing instrumental of drums and lone piano notes illuminating a ghostly lovelorn melody, the piano here being Morrissey’s only instrumental contribution in their entire discography. While admittedly sloppily played, the piano still manages to convey the same comically exaggerated “woe is me” attitude that Morrissey constantly infuses into his vocals.
As “Disco Dancer” transitions into the next track, “Girlfriend in a Coma,” the melodrama is dialed up to eleven as Morrissey croons over an oddly cheerful instrumental for the characteristically somber Smiths. For a song about resisting the urge to murder your significant other, it sure is sugar sweet and charming, recalling some of their wittiest tracks from the past such as “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and “Frankly, Mr. Shankly.”
“Strangeways” also brings us one of the most anthemic tracks The Smiths ever put onto vinyl, with “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Ever Heard This One Before.” The first time I ever heard this song I was regretfully browsing Hot Topic for the first time in my life, and it’s a horrible association I’ve never been able to entirely shake. However, for first time listeners, “Stop Me” is one of the most accessible Smiths tracks and is a great jumping off point due to its earworm of a chorus and mesmerizingly ghostly guitar riff.
However, the aforementioned blemishes that mar “Strangeways” become particularly noticeable when the track “Unhappy Birthday” begins. “Unhappy Birthday” was definitely a sign of things to come, but it’s not necessarily a good sign. It’s very reminiscent of the poorer cuts from Morrissey’s later spotty solo career, being just a tad too overwhelmingly Morrissey-esque for its own good.
Some singles and B-sides near the end of The Smiths’ discography, such as “Work Is A 4 Letter Word” and “Golden Lights,” have the same sort of feel as “Unhappy Birthday.” They’re glossy, overproduced and sound more like a novelty track than a serious pop song.
“Strangeways” as a whole, however, transcends this musical style by transforming novelty into something greater. Morrissey always infuses humor into his lyrics, but the music itself on “Strangeways” finds itself on the perfect crossroads between comedy and tragedy.
What “Strangeways, Here We Come” has over the rest of their studio albums is a sense of finality. While their first three albums feel intimate and personal, “Strangeways” turns Morrissey’s voice and Marr’s guitar work into a monumental force of nature. While it may be their most flawed release, The Smiths made sure they would leave the music world on a high note, saving their most accessible and dynamic release for last.