A friend of mine had a joke about the Cure — he called them “the Cure for Happiness”.
We lumped the Smiths in with that joke because back then fans of both bands came off as morose.
Morrissey’s moribund disposition preceded him — you didn’t need to hear him sing about how miserable he was. That was just a given.
So for years, I wrote him off, despite the fact I … actually found him kind of hot. (That immortal shot of him shirtless with his hand behind his head never fails to grab my attention.)
But Morrissey has an incredibly distinct singing style. Never mind the nasal timbre of his voice — his sense of melody straddles the line between speech and music.
As part of my effort to explore the music I feel I should have grown up with, I decided to try my hand at a Smiths album, and I went straight for the one deemed by various sources as the band’s best — The Queen Is Dead.
Morrissey is indeed a tortured soul, but he’s got one sharp wit.
The mouthy opening title track is almost absurd with its imagery. "Charles, don’t you ever crave to appear on the front of the Daily Mail dressed in your mother’s bridal veil?" he asks, addressing a member of the Royal Family.
Morrissey later on sings: "She said, ‘I know you and you cannot sing’. I said, ‘That’s nothing, you should hear me play piano.’"
"There’s a Light That Never Dies" epitomizes the irony of bouncy music mixed with dreary lyrics. Morrissey’s near joyous performance on the chorus gives the words an unnerving optimism: "And if a double decker bus crashes into us/ To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die".
10,000 Maniacs attempted the same kind of contrast — I can see why Morrissey ended up writing "Have-a-Go Merchant".
I understand now the god-like status Johnny Marr has accrued over the years. So many other bands around that time aped that chiming sound. Marr, however, managed to make it sound muscular.
He can go from the half-time thump of "Frankly Mr. Shankley" to the two-step rhythms of "Vicar in a Tutu" with a flick of the wrist. He can fill in the expansive sound of "Never Had No One Ever" and hold back on the sparse "I Know It’s Over".
The Marr-Morrissey pairing exuded chemistry — it’s unfortunate the two no longer create music together.
The middle tracks of The Queen Is Dead dragged for me, but the bookend tracks are unforgettable. The vitriol of "Frankly Mr. Shankly" feels palpatable, and "There’s a Light That Never Goes Out" is infectously hummable.
In fact, The Queen Is Dead is the level of good that makes me reluctant to explore the rest of the Smiths’ catalog — it seems like I’d be setting myself up for disappointment.
Not to worry. The pleasure, the privelege is mine.