1. Not that there’s much competition on this front, but this is the Smiths album with the best title; the preceding three that weren’t eponymous were all declarative, this is imaginative.
2. Mark Prindle nails this one, ”At some point, Steven became a better singer. […] He just seems much more comfortable now, and less likely to return to the same note over and over again. On some of these (especially the fuzzy swingin’ “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish”), he darn tootin’ plays witty games with his mic, dripping honeywax, sarcasm, sflaj, growls and sputters all over his adoring fan base through the medium of vocals with instrumental accompaniment.”
Yup. Morrissey on fire here. The grunted performance in the choruses of both “A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours” and “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” elevate them from entertaining rock songs into entertaining rock songs by the Smiths, while his repeated “No, no, no, no”’s on closer “I Won’t Share You” are his typical melodrama put into such a simple expression (and having the best melody (variations, too!) on the album’s final stretch of tracks helps too) that even though the track’s not one of their most impressive lyrically or musically, it’s one of their most touching (though “Has the Perrier gone / Straight to my head / Or is life sick and cruel, instead?” touches me).
3. On the other hand, I think you’d have noticed that people hardly ever talk about the band’s rhythm section and with good reason: you wouldn’t know Andy Rourke did much at all (excepting “Girlfriend in a Coma”) or Mike Joyce was a man and not a drum machine (the last section of “Death of a Disco Dancer” was apparently drum machine programming courtesy of Stephen Street, but you wouldn’t even have known because it sounds like the stuff that Mike Joyce would dream up; God, they couldn’t find someone who had some jazz learnings to do it?).
4. As for Johnny Marr? I’ll defer back to Prindle, ”More importantly, this final album is their most melodic full-length studio recording yet. The guitar tones are beauteously delicate and gentle, and the mix is bursting with unorthodox instruments – accordions! horns! ukeleles! harmoniums! violins! organs! sound FX! saxophones! All this and John “Guitar” Marr’s Guitars by Marrs! It’s full, lush, sflaj, melodic, and half of the songs are instant classics.”
Yup (though that’s a bit of an exaggeration). If you’re expecting Johnny Marr’s trademark janglework, you’ll leave disappointed. A ways back, somewhere in the deepest dirges of the Internet (I’m guessing it was a Youtube comment), I read that someone called Johnny Marr a genius based solely because of his multi-instrumentalism seen onStrangeways, Here We Come. Yeah, sorry, no. Anyone could do the non-guitar things that Marr does here. It doesn’t take a RCM-graduate to play the two chords that comprise “A Rush and a Push.” Meanwhile, “Unhappy Birthday” exists only because it gives Marr a chance to dick around on the string setting of his synthesizer but a) he forgets to do anything special with his acoustic guitar while he’s doing that b) the string line is so…fucking pointless that who cares? Other bands that took up the Smiths’ mantle will do the strings and jangle combination better they’ll use a real string player to play real strings and won’t forget the jangle in the meantime (see: Belle and Sebastian’s “If You’re Feeling Sinister”).
Of course, the times he is playing a guitar is still good enough for me: his bounce on “Death at One’s Elbow” saves it from being a completethrowaway (still a throwaway, though) especially following the overlong and uninteresting “Paint a Vulgar Picture”; he throws some interesting touches on “Death of a Disco Dancer” which is otherwise a Morrissey show and he’s convincing enough as an arena rocker on “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” and “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before.”
5. Anyway, while I’m being overly critical of an album that I’m quite a fan of (I’d call this their second best), I might as well get all of the bad stuff out the way. “Paint a Vulgar Picture” exists for exactly one line, “Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package! / Re-evaluate the songs / Double-pack with a photograph / Extra track (and a tacky badge)” (which is what happened to the Smiths’ discography just the previous year) but the fucking thing is a single idea occupying almost 6 minutes, and methinks those words would’ve been much better executed from the mouth of Mark E. Smith than the nonchalant way that Morrissey sings them. Elsewhere, I’m not convinced by the last section of “Death of a Disco Dancer” either; over the aforementioned drumming, Morrissey gives us a thorny piano jazz-thing, but when people think of Morrissey, I don’t think they think of piano jazz first. Or second. Or third. Or at all, actually.
6. Anyway, the good stuff. In addition to being vocally active, Morrissey is still deliciously catchy, and hooks from the first stretch of tracks, the “So phone me, phone me”’s (hilarious because the way they’re stretched sounds vaguely like Morrissey is saying “So fuck me, fuck me” – which makes just as much sense in the context, if not more); “Typical me”’s; “Maybe in the next life”’s and “Stop me, o-ho-ho, stop me”’s will all bounce in your head when all is said and done. Elsewhere, his sassy entrance, “I’ve come to wish you an unhappy birthday!” is frankly the only good thing about that track (and I wish he gave us one of those during the track’s second half).
The people who like Morrissey for more than just his ability to lay down hooks leave with a handful of Morrissey-isms and melodrama. Opener “A Rush and a Push” is my favorite track here because of that, with lines like “Leave me alone, because I’m alright, Dad / Surprised to still be on my own” and “People who are uglier than you and I / They take what they need and just leave.” [A quick tangent: allmusic’s Stephen T. Erlewine notes that “[Strangeways, Here We Come] aspires greatly to better The Queen is Dead” by “boasting a fuller production than before.” Yup – and the operative word there is “aspires.” You can hear Mike Joyce playing what sounds like steel drums and then what sounds like bongos on “A Rush and a Push” and I say “I think” because the additions are so faint, they may as well have been him banging pencils on binder spines]. Elsewhere, “Girlfriend in a Coma” easily ranks up there with the band’s classics. Andy Rourke’s bass bounces in a way that we haven’t heard sinceMeat is Murder, while the strings (real ones this time, arranged by Stephen Street who knows how to arrange them) provide an extra layer of melodic goodness. And Morrissey’s lyrics on that one are some of his most engaging (for lack of a better word), “There were times that I could have murdered her / But you know, I would hate anything to happen to her.”
7. Anyway, Johnny Marr told Spin that “[Strangeways] is my favorite Smiths record” (though people often overlook the fact that he also states that “The Queen Is Dead is not my favorite Smiths album, but I’m willing to bow to the conventional wisdom that it’s the band’s best”). Anyway, he spends a lot of time talking about “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,” so I suppose I’ll do the same here. I do agree that “Morrissey’s singing on it is really great” (his launches into falsetto are particularly noteworthy) and that indeed, “it managed to be […] heavy without having the elements that people usually associate with heavy music” (I’m guessing he’s referring to when the intro ends and the song explodes into view). On Stephen T. Erlewine’s previous comment about the album’s production, I find “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” is where that’s best seen. The strings here could have very well been real and arranged by Stephen Street, while I frankly love how they set up the intro (which returns for the song’s outro) – it sounds like a mob raging outside the recording studio’s front doors – and it adds a huge sense of urgencybefore Morrissey even begins singing.