The Smiths

While the band never had hits or mainstream success in the States and were criticized by their detractors as dour and fey, The Smiths left behind a catalog of amazingly smart pop songs that captured the frailty of the human condition while at the same time laughed at the absurdity of life. In just five years, Morrissey and Johnny Marr established themselves as a songwriting team as talented as McCartney and Lennon or Jagger and Richards, creating an oeuvre that resonated with rock & roll’s foundations, only turned on their collective ear to reflect modern times as they were in ’80s England.

Lacing his lyrics with literary references and odes to obscure pop culture ephemera, Morrissey was a very un-rock star. He cast himself as social misfit in his songs, singing of shyness and maladroit relations instead of the norms of rebel bravado and sexual conquest. Marr’s backing was similarly idiosyncratic, taking cues from both ’60s pop jangle as well as, to a much lesser extent, post-punk’s gray tones. Though Morrissey, and in turn the band, was often pigeonholed as a miserablist, there was an abundance of humor in his turns of phrase and plays on words. Few bands have so brilliantly transcended rock & roll’s perceived limitations, creating something so much more than just about everything that came before it.

The Smiths’ impact was immediate, and their 1984 self-titled debut contains some of the band’s most provocative and memorable songs. The record opens with “Reel Around the Fountain,” which references Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey and, like much of the record, is about the loss of innocence. This thematic concern is best exemplified on the triumvirate of “Still Ill,” “Hand in Glove” and “What Difference Does It Make?” The last of these is among the band’s best, with Morrissey describing being refuted with lines like, “The devil will find work for idle hands to do... but now you make me feel so ashamed because I’ve only got two hands.” But it is “This Charming Man” that truly stands out. Here Marr delivers a sparkling guitar line atop Andy Rourke’s bass, which bounds with equal verve while Morrissey laments, “Will nature make a man of me yet?” The track is the perfect combination of pop vibrancy and articulate lyricism.

Most sell The Smiths’ sophomore release, Meat Is Murder short, which while something of a transitional record, shows the band’s songwriting becoming more complex. Sure, the title track is perhaps the weakest cut to appear on any record, but “Well I Wonder” is not to be overlooked. Marr and Rourke create a beautifully glum atmosphere, while Morrissey makes allusions to death and loneliness. Elsewhere, the upbeat “Rusholme Ruffians” is a conflux of imagery, painting a town fair as both a place of youthful amorousness and brutality in lines like, “Someone falls in love, and someone’s beaten up.”

It is 1986’s The Queen Is Dead that is The Smiths’ greatest triumph, however. The record fluctuates between the despondency of songs like “I Know It’s Over” and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” and the gilded jangle of “Cemetry Gates” and “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side.” All four members are in top form and even the two-minute letter of resignation “Frankly Mr. Shankly” is arresting in its charm and humor. “Bigmouth Strikes Again” is another classic with Marr’s speedy acoustic riff wrapping around astute lyrics like, “Now I know how Joan of Arc felt, as the flames rose to her Roman nose, and her Walkman started to melt.”

The Smiths called it a day in 1987 with the release Strangeways, Here We Come, and indeed one can hear the magic between Morrissey and Marr dissipating on the album. Moreover, Stephen Street’s production is heavy-handed, washing away the textural quirks that helped keep the band from sounding like their imitators. The album wasn’t the best note to go out on, but songs like “Girlfriend in a Coma” and “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” aren’t without allure.

But much of the Mancunian band’s best work was found on singles, just about all of which can be found between the British Hatful of Hollow and The World Won’t Listen and the American double album that pulled from both of those, Louder Than Bombs. “How Soon Is Now” (the band’s biggest hit), “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” “Ask,” “Back to the Old House,” “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want”—these are indispensable. Less necessary is Rank, the live album released a year after the band broke up. It’s hard to explain, but the general bombast of the record doesn’t allow the songs to come across well. Though I have no doubt The Smiths were brilliant live (I missed my one opportunity to see them at Cleveland’s Music Hall in 1986), this record is unconvincing.

Strangely enough, The Smiths’ catalog hasn’t received the deluxe reissue treatment. Or perhaps not surprising, given that they once criticized such practices (on “Paint a Vulgar Picture”). But aside from the vinyl reissues of The Smiths and The Queen Is Dead from a couple years, these records never got the remastering they’ve long deserved. Thus, Rhino’s new Complete boxsets are much needed and welcomed. With Marr having overseen the remastering of the entirety of the band’s albums, each record sounds better than it ever has before.

The set includes all eight of the albums the band released, and can be had in both vinyl and CD forms. Better yet, though, is the deluxe edition, which not only includes both vinyl and CD of each album, but 25 reissue 7-inch singles and a DVD of the band’s videos. It’s pretty much everything a Smiths fan could want short of a lock of Morrissey’s coif. While there isn’t any new material to be had—the band either released everything they ever recorded durning their tenure or has been vigilant about not letting outtakes see the light of day—this is one of the greatest bodies of work ever recorded and something no one should be without.
Stephen Slaybaugh