Graded on a Curve:
The Smiths,
The Queen Is Dead

I’m a Morrissey fan by temperament—of all the musicians who have ever lived, Manchester’s most famous miserabalist (he even beats Mark E. Smith!) comes closest to sharing my belief that hope is the lubricant that keeps the human meat grinder running—and because I consider him the funniest musician to ever kvetch into a microphone.

I can’t help but love a man who quipped, “What’s the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning? Wish I hadn’t.” And was quoted as saying, “I have found the best way to avoid ending your life as a bitter wreck is to start out as one.” The Mancunian misanthropist’s feckless take on life is utterly hilarious, and what I’ll never get over is there are people out there who don’t think he’s funny. No wonder Morrissey’s miserable; he’s a great comedian but nobody gets his jokes.

And the jokes just keep on coming on The Smiths’ third studio LP, 1986’s The Queen Is Dead. Morrissey possesses a savage wit; “Girlfriend in a Coma” is a black comedy for the ages. And on The Queen Is Dead Morrissey is in top form. He opens “Bigmouth Strikes Again” with the lines, “Sweetness, sweetness I was only joking/When I said I’d like to/Smash every tooth in your head/Sweetness, sweetness I was only joking/When I said by rights/You should be bludgeoned in your bed” and you can practically hear him cackling. And his take on dying a romantic death on “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” (“And if a double-decker bus/Crashes into us/To die by your side/Is such a heavenly way to die/And if a ten-ton truck/Kills the both of us/To die by your side/Well, the pleasure—the privilege is mine”) never fails to crack me up.

On other tracks his sense of humor veers wildly towards the absurd. He delights in the sight of a vicar in a tutu; he is astonished by the revelation that some girls are bigger than others, and some girls’ mothers are bigger than other girls’ mothers; he heads to the “cemetry” because it’s a “dreadful sunny day.” On the great title track Morrissey breaks into the royal palace with “a sponge and a rusty spanner” only to run into the Queen who says, “Eh, I know you, and you cannot sing.” To which he replies, “That’s nothing—you should hear me play the piano.” On the impossibly bleak “Never Had No One Ever” he hilariously puts a time stamp on a really bad dream (i.e., “It lasted 20 years, 7 months, and 27 days”) because he wants us to know that really bad dream happens to be his life. The man is a crack-up even at his most miserable, which is of course always.

But NME didn’t call The Queen Is Dead the greatest album of all time on the basis of Morrissey’s sense of humor alone. There are songs wrapped around the jokes, and so far as I’m concerned the only one that isn’t a smashing success is “I Know It’s Over,” which I find morose to a fault. Although that said I do love the line, “If you’re so very entertaining, why are you on your own tonight?” It’s a question I have no doubt he’s asked himself on innumerable occasions.

On The Queen Is Dead Johnny Marr’s songwriting hits a peak; the chipper numbers (“Bigmouth Strikes Again,” “The Boy With a Thorn in His Side,” “Cemetry Gates,” “Vicar in a Tutu,” and I could go on) are giddy-making, with fetching melodies that provide the perfect counterpoint to Morrissey’s mordant wit.

Stylistically, the songs run the gamut. The title track features some ferocious drumming and lots of natty vocal effects and has real muscle; “Vicar in a Tutu” is a fey rockabilly tune that positively gallivants. The sprightly “Cemetry Gates” boasts a great bass line and some luvverly strummed guitars. “Bigmouth Strikes Again” lopes along to the sound of some more luvverly strummed guitars and some wonderfully distorted backing vocals. “The Boy With a Thorn in His Side” soars while Morrissey practically swoons.

And so it goes, jewel after jewel after jewel, all of them guaranteed to stick to you like, well, glamorous glue. It’s true that the third and fourth cuts (the dour “I Know It’s Over” and the positively bummerific “Never Had No One Ever”) spoil the fun somewhat, but Morrissey wouldn’t be Morrissey if he didn’t sink into a funk now and again. Just saying no to life comes at a cost.

“Bigmouth Strikes Again” is a timelier sentiment than ever given Morrissey’s recent ugly comments on the sexual abuse scandals rocking Hollywood. Morrissey has always been prone to giving voice to his every last awful thought; he once pronounced the Chinese a “subspecies” and has said many nasty and saddening things about how immigrants are ruining his beloved Merry Olde England. His misanthropy seems to have gotten worse as he’s aged, and is taking increasingly unseemly forms. Which is too bad because I’m a misanthropist and we misanthropists must stick together.

In “Bigmouth” Morrissey sings, “I’ve got no right to take my place in the human race.” I have no doubt whatsoever he considers this a point of pride; something tells me Morrissey doesn’t particularly want to be a member of the human race. (I know I don’t.) At his best Morrissey is a compassionate crank with a soft spot for animals, outcasts, and the lonely; at his worst he’s a sad and aging hater with a knack for saying hateful and deplorable things. Why, he even took a cheap shot at my hero Elton John. But I’m not going to let that stop me from enjoying The Queen Is Dead. It’s too brilliant a record. One can only hope he wakes up one morning and decides to heed the advice of the vicar in “Vicar in a Tutu.” To wit, “My man, get your vile soul dry-cleaned.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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