Graded on a Curve: The Smiths, Strangeways, Here We Come

Morrissey has long been the funniest man in the rock biz. The King of the Miserablists (my own word) and high priest of unrequited love has turned self-pity and general anomie into pop gold, and in the process has proven Samuel Beckett’s famous adage that “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” But the Moz is more than just a jilted jester. He can hit the tragic notes too, although he often filters them through irony and his trademark humor.

Since his beginnings with The Smiths, Morrissey has cut a unique figure on the pop landscape. Fey, sensitive as a flower, yet possessed of a wit as cutting as a straight razor, Morrissey is the closest we’ve ever gotten to a second coming of Oscar Wilde. He strikes one as being much too tender a violet for this world, yet can vent contempt as well as Bob Dylan. Throw in a unique voice, and a personal life that is veiled in myth and conjecture, and you’ve got my idea of the perfect pop figure—one who looks at life darkly, but transmutes that darkness into irresistible pop songs. Really, is there—or has there ever been?—another pop star who could pull off a song as complex, ironic, and ultimately hilarious as “Girlfriend in a Coma”?

I’m one of those rare birds who, all things considered, slightly favors Morrissey’s solo work to his work with The Smiths. That said, I’ve always felt the pull of Strangeways, Here We Come, from its title with its mention of a now-defunct English prison to such moving songs as “Death of a Disco Dancer” and “Paint a Vulgar Picture.” Strangeways was the fourth and final Smiths studio LP, with Morrissey and Marr parting ways after some false information in the press giving the impression that Morrissey was exasperated by Marr’s side projects managed to sever their remarkably successful partnership.

The Smiths hailed from Manchester in 1982 and included Morrissey on vocals; Johnny Marr on guitar, keyboards, harmonica, autoharp, synthesized strings, and saxophone arrangements; Andy Rourke on bass; and Mike Joyce on drums. Marr wrote the music, Morrissey the lyrics, just like Elton John and Bernie Taupin. As for Marr, his songs are almost uniformly excellent and remarkably varied in melody, tone, and sheer sonic power. The Smiths could be a hard-hitting rock band when they wanted to be, but Marr was just as adept at writing ballads, symphonic poppers, and fast-paced but lighter weight songs. And while Morrissey has gone on to demonstrate he could succeed just as well without Marr as with him, who knows what heights the duo might have reached had they remained a songwriting team.

Anyway, to Strangeways, Here We Come. A lovely melody and lots of neat percussion characterize opener “A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours.” It’s a mysterious song about a young suicide who doesn’t want to hear mention of the word “love,” and features Morrissey emitting his trademark growls, sighs, and whispered utterances, that is when he isn’t complaining about “people who are uglier than you and I/They take what they need, and just leave.” And I love the touch the characteristically Morrissey lines, “Some eighteen months ago/I traveled to a mystical time zone/And I missed my bed/And I soon came home.” Missing his bed; a tragedy in Morrissey’s world. A muscular guitar opens follow-up “I Started Something I Can’t Finish,” which employs saxophones and more growls from a Morrissey whose lyrics are enigmatic, but seem to recount an adventure that leads him to Strangeways and hard labor. Or perhaps not. “Typical me” he repeats over and over again, a man (to quote Delmore Schwartz) trapped in “the coffin of his character” as the saxophones wail.

The great “Death of a Disco Dancer” opens with some wiry feedback and Morrissey singing in a hushed voice about the how a disco dancer is deceased and he’d rather not get involved. On this one Morrissey is, I think, being purely sincere—that “Love, peace and harmony/Love, peace and harmony/Oh very nice, very nice, very nice/But maybe in the next world” is Morrissey at his most cynical and cutting, and he means every word. Meanwhile the melody is lovely, and the song builds to a great pinnacle thanks to Marr’s guitar and Morrissey’s piano, and I don’t know whether the song is about AIDS or what, but Morrissey’s sense of outrage is real, and it’s doubtful that he believes love, peace, and harmony are to be found in the next world, or any world for that matter. “Girlfriend in a Coma” is also bona drag great, what with its unreliable narrator (Is he really sorry she’s in a coma? And does he really hope “she’ll pull through”? Doubtful…). A simple little song, it hilariously captures the duplicities of the human heart, and Morrissey sings it in his most sincere croon, adding to the irony factor of his words, which say he cares but seem to mean he doesn’t.

“Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” is another superb track, opening with a delirious build-up before Morrissey sings the words of the title. Hushed and lovely, and with a fabulous guitar solo by Marr, “Stop Me” is another mysterious number. He gets beat up but good, wants to know who called him a liar, and gets so drunk he ends up on the floor, and the song is about a joke that isn’t funny, even if his scathing final lines, “Nothing’s changed/I still love you/Oh, I still love you/Only slightly, only slightly less than I used to, my love” are. Melodically captivating, it moves along like a carnival ride, and is just as dizzying, what with Morrissey uttering cryptic lines like “I crashed down on the crossbar/And the pain was enough/To make a shy, bald, Buddhist reflect/And plan a mass murder.” Meanwhile, “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” is Morrissey at his most star crossed, the perpetual loser in the game of amour destined to spend his miserable existence alone. A long piano opening is accompanied by crowd noises, until Marr’s guitar and Morrissey come crashing in, following the title with the words of a man who has lowered his expectations of love to the point of null: “No hope, no harm, just another false alarm.” Meanwhile the song is majestic, with big symphonic effects accompanying Morrissey repeating, “The story is old/But it goes on,” implying of course that everybody knows how it turns out, and that’s badly. As the song slowly winds down, in reverse as it were, Marr throws in some cool guitar and that’s it, Morrissey is alone and all is as should be.

“Unhappy Birthday” is a hilarious little riff, with Morrissey threatening to shoot his dog over a lover who stiffed him, and telling said lover, “And if you should die/I may be slightly sad/(But I won’t cry).” Like a malevolent ghost he comes, to say, “So drink, drink, drink/And be ill tonight.” The song itself is pretty little thing, perky and with nice guitar, while Morrissey is at his most down in the mouth, calling himself “the one you left behind” over and over as the song ends. Meanwhile “Paint a Vulgar Picture” is great, opening with a great chiming guitar riff and wonderful drums as Morrissey sings about the exploitation of a dead star that Morrissey loved from afar as a youth. As he runs through the details of the repackaging of the star who never knew he existed, he repeats, “You could have said no/If you’d wanted to.” There’s a great guitar solo, and the song is luscious, and Morrissey recalls walking “a pace behind you at the soundcheck” and how he danced “his legs down to his knees” to his star’s songs, a “child from those ugly new houses.” And then there’s the moment when he sings, “You’re just the same as I am/What makes most people feel happy/Leads us both into harm.” He concludes that he’s sorry that he and his “true love will never meet again” before the song ends in a smattering of applause.

“Death at One’s Elbow” is a fast-paced, almost rockabilly number that opens with some neat sound effects, before the Moz commences to beg one “Glenn” (clearly a lover who spurned him) not to come to the house tonight. Why? Because Morrissey will “take a hatchet” to his ear is why. Unrequited love is Morrissey’s métier, and this one’s a doozy, with Morrissey asking Glenn to stay away “Because you’ll slip on the/Trail of all my sad remains/That’s why, that’s why.” He then bids Glenn adieu, and while this isn’t my favorite on the album, musically it’s intriguing. Strangeways, Here We Come ends with the slow and lugubrious “I Won’t Share You,” which is pretty much self-explanatory. The guitar work is beautiful, and Morrissey’s vocals are lovely and evocative, but the lyrics are nothing special; Morrissey repeats that “life tends to come and go/That’s okay as long as you know” and he refrains from any of the details that make his lyrics so great with the exception of the lines that go, “She said, ‘Has the Perrier gone/Straight to my head/Or is life sick and cruel, instead?’”

Morrissey would certainly answer in the affirmative, life to him being a case of B who loves C who loves D who loves B. But he has spent decades leavening his dour outlook with sarcasm, irony, and gallows humor. His labors have made him, as I mentioned at the start, the King of the Miserablists, but let’s be plain—if one were to take every glum word that comes out of his mouth seriously, he would be unbearable. And some people, those with irony deficiencies to be short, despise him for this reason.

But that’s their loss. The Morrissey who sings, “And if a double-decker bus/Crashes in to us/To die by your side/Is such a heavenly way to die” is a comedian and a brilliant one at that; ditto the Morrissey who wants to hang the DJ, who wishes to see his miserably grey seaside idyll ended by an atomic bomb, and who sings “Heaven knows I’m miserable now” is playing it for laughs.

Which is not to say he’s never serious. He is. It’s just that when you’re listening to a Morrissey song you need to tread carefully, because deciding whether the guy who says, “Why do I smile/At people I’m much rather/Kick in the eye” is serious or not is no easy business. Oscar Wilde once warned James Whistler, “Be warned in time, James, and remain, as I do, incomprehensible: to be great is to be misunderstood.” I believe the same can be said of Steven Patrick Morrissey, the wittiest literary figure to walk the streets of London since Oscar Wilde, bar an Evelyn Waugh or two.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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