Discovering The Smiths in 2006
I know what you're thinking.
"Mark, how did someone who purports to have his finger on the pulse... nay, on the carotid artery of all things musical and hip manage to make it to 2006 without ever hearing The Smiths? Did you sign a contract? Did you lose a bet? Did you spend the eighties and nineties living in a tree in order to keep it from being cut down, thereby losing access to record stores?"
Well, obviously not, you guys. If I were the kind of person who would live in a tree, I would already know The Smiths' music.
And it's not like I didn't know them at all. Even growing up in Chattanooga, I still had access to Rolling Stone and MTV, so my cultural studies let me know that Morrissey (or, "The Moz") was an influential rock star. Even though I hit adolescence after The Smiths broke up, I did buy the cassette single of Morrissey's solo hit "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get." I liked the somber tunefulness. I also liked that Moz posed on the single's back cover with his shirt open. Rowr!
Here's what that glancing knowledge led me to believe about The Smiths' music:
*It's the suicide soundtrack for fashion-conscious teens
*It's the slowest, saddest music in the world. Like, slower and sadder than Mazzy Star.
Then one fateful day, Andrew and I were driving to Vermont (no, not Montreal), and he was on his iPod DJ shift. He played this catchy number that I quite liked. "What is this?" I asked.
"It's 'Ask' by The Smiths," he reported, "I loved them in middle school!"
Andrew explained that he especially loved a line from the song "Unloveable" that said, "I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside." "That one line crystallizes what the Smiths are all about," he said.
I figured this proved my assumptions about the group, but I was intrigued by this catchy "Ask."
I asked (tee hee) Andrew to tell me more. He said he'd burn me a copy of "Louder than Bombs," which pulls together a lot of their singles and rarities.
Now that I've heard the album several times, I have a brand new take on The Moz and Co.
Herewith... Mark's New Thoughts on The Smiths
First off, "Louder Than Bombs" is instantly accessible. The music has more hooks than a bait shop. I'd describe much of it as fun. There are ballads and sorrowful numbers, but tracks like "Sweet and Tender Hooligan" and "London"are mosh-ready punk. Meanwhile, "Sheila Take a Bow" joins "Ask" as a danceable number the Go-Gos might enjoy.
And with a few exceptions, even the slower cuts aren't as slow as I'd expected. Mid-tempo songs like "William, It Was Really Nothing" recall 10,000 Maniacs or The Posies--rich, textured music whose drum-heavy rhythm feels alive.
I can also hear that The Smiths have influenced everyone from The Maniacs to Gin Blossoms to Snow Patrol (if you've been reading this blog, you know that's good news to me.). But I'd argue that many of them have taken the band's sound and tidied it up a bit. Structurally, songs on "Louder than Bombs" tend toward ragged turns. "Sweet and Tender Hooligan," for instance, starts out tightly controlled, but it ends in near-chaos. Morrissey howls, the pitch kicks up, guitar strings get furiously slapped. An emotional voyage has occurred.
It's a voyage that happens on almost every track on the album. Better still, no journey is the same. Each track has a distinct tone--often different from the one just before it--but the band feels comfortable of a range of styles. Morrissey's voice proves especially fluid. True, it never loses its weeping quality, but he sculpts his instrument to fit the emotional needs of whatever song he's singing. With a lesser performer, self-deprecating songs like "Half a Person" and "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" might be sung the same way. Moz, however, has versatility. The former track has a low-pitched, extended-syllable weariness. On the latter, the vocal is lighter, the words just barely glanced upon. Higher in his register, Morrissey sounds more bemused than defeated. Same vocalist, different persona.
Yet the lyrics to these lively and varied anthems are just as bleak as I'd imagined them to be. Snow Patrol may have dark phrases, but they can't compete with gems like these...
I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour, but heaven knows I'm miserable now
I know I'm unloveable. You don't have to tell me. I don't have much in my life.
Oh yes, you can kick me, and you can punch my face, but you won't change the way I feel.
If I had discovered this album when I was an angsty teenager with a taste for poetry, I would have held it up like Excelsior in the sun. Finally, a band that understands my pain!
But now that I don't feel black on the inside? I wonder how serious the agony really is. The lyrics are so hyperbolically morose--and they often contrast so completely with the music that accompanies them--I feel like "Louder Than Bombs" could be an album's worth of irony. Does Morrissey really mean all this, or is he commenting on the type of narcissism that would allow someone to believe their personal heartbreak is tragic?
Or is it both?
That blurred line makes the music even more intriguing. This is a record with a secret or two. This is music that can speak to us or entertain us. We're allowed to choose.
I choose both. Next time Andrew and I are on a road trip, I'm going to cue up a few Smiths tunes myself.