Album Analysis | The Smiths - The Smiths
The legendary Manchester quartet's debut LP introduced the world to songwriting duo Morrissey and Marr's distinctive combination of melancholy melodrama and stylish guitar pop that defined a generation of outcasts.
The Smiths’ 1984 self-titled album starts humbly, with Mike Joyce’s reverb-heavy drums that sound typical of the ‘80s to modern listeners. However, the first few seconds of the album are the only time that The Smiths doesn’t stand out, both stylistically and qualitatively, from the rest of the crop of the British charts at the time. While artists like Duran Duran, Culture Club, and Wham! were popularising synth-pop with undeniably infectious melodies, The Smiths were offering something simultaneously more unique and indebted to the post-punk and rock ‘n’ roll of the past.
Guitarist Johnny Marr, then a mere nineteen years of age, composed and arranged almost all of the music on this album. Having grown up on a diet of glam rock, classic punk and disco, he amalgamated these into a fantastic blend that birthed some of the most catchy and musically distinct songs in pop music history. His now-famous guitar sound, built around layering, intricate arpeggios, and a slew of effects, has been often mimicked but never matched - the later half of the ‘80s, and most of the ‘90s guitar scene would be littered with bright, jangling lead guitar lines directly indebted to Marr’s distinctive style.
Mike Joyce’s powerful, insistent drumming, and Andy Rourke’s busy, bouncing basslines provided a solid foundation for Marr’s interweaving guitar lines, which shimmer and skip around the songs like fireflies. The production by John Porter (Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry) has admittedly dated on the band’s debut album - subsequent LPs Meat is Murder and The Queen is Dead would sound fuller and more dynamic than the debut- but the songs still paint vivid textures.
Marr’s meeting of Steven Morrissey in 1978 (although they didn’t form the band until 1982) at a Patti Smith gig in their hometown of Manchester was the beginning of something special. Manchester in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was a city heavily affected by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies, and unemployment and poverty were rife. Morrissey, himself unemployed at the time, grew up seeing the establishment’s abandonment of the northern working classes, and had been channelling this alienation into his writing. Upon meeting musical wunderkind Johnny Marr, Morrissey’s words were given a platform, and the pair would soon become a songwriting partnership to rival Lennon and McCartney. Both artists have had prolific and successful careers since the demise of The Smiths, but neither has matched alone the achievements of their all-too-brief musical partnership.
The first song the duo wrote that made it to their debut album was “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”, a devotional lullaby with a slowly chiming lead guitar line and verbose lyrics filled with gothic imagery (“wavering shadows loom / A piano plays in an empty room”) and reminiscent of the Romantic poets (“your untouched, unsoiled, wondrous eyes”). “Reel Around the Fountain”, another slower cut, opens the album in a low-key yet stunning fashion, drifting along on a dreamlike, reverb-drenched melody against Morrissey’s paeans to a fellow outsider: “People see no worth in you / Oh, but I do”. Gentle piano and organ overdubs adorn this track gorgeously and make this one of the standouts of the album, evoking the ethereal dream-pop of contemporary band Cocteau Twins. Morrissey’s love of kitchen-sink British drama is reflected in his borrowing a line from Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey, set in nearby Salford: “I dreamt about you last night / And I fell out of bed twice”. The track ends with Morrissey’s world-weary baritone rising in pitch to an impassioned declaration of “I do”. The vocals on this album are some of the best of the band’s career, often moving seamlessly between doleful crooning and shrieking yelps, best typified by the frantic climax of “Miserable Lie”.
Many of the lyrics on The Smiths, particularly on “Hand in Glove” and “What Difference Does it Make” are subversive references to sexuality. In comparison to the overt confidence of their contemporary acts like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, who celebrated both sex and gay culture openly, Morrissey’s lyrics reflected the worries of many people for whom sex and sexuality were a source of anxiety and alienation, including those who fell somewhere on the spectrum outside of entirely heterosexual. Morrissey’s lyrics used vague allusions to forbidden (“everything depends upon how near you stand to me”) or unrequited (“now you have gone / And your prejudice won’t keep you warm tonight”) love and lust to express subversively the frustrations of those more closeted, whether by their own fears or by society’s judgement. It is no wonder the band’s songs struck such a chord with young people of all sexualities.
The album cover is a still of cult American actor Joe Dallesandro (interestingly, also immortalised as "Little Joe" in Lou Reed's seminal 1972 single "Walk On the Wild Side") from Peter Morrissey (no relation) and Andy Warhol's 1968 film Flesh, which features a bisexual male sex worker. Morrissey's simultaneous fascination with, and disgust of, the concept of sex in many of the album's lyrics makes this an intriguing choice.
In the 21st century, it can be difficult to remember Morrissey (he dropped the “Steven” from his public name before The Smiths was released, perhaps at odds with his reasoning behind the band’s name being to represent “the ordinary folks”?) as something other than an eccentric and controversial public figure - a dated caricature at best and a reactionary, malignant force at worst. But before his numerous and increasingly concerning public statements, Morrissey was a unique and iconic figure in the British pop scene, combining the New Romantics’ flamboyant and sexually-ambiguous rejection of traditional masculinity with the wit and bookishness of Oscar Wilde and the brashly anti-establishment ideals of the punk movement. Pale, skinny, and sounding like “a malfunctioning Sinatra” (according to Slant’s Matthew Cole), Morrissey’s famous gladioli-twirling debut on Top of the Pops cemented him and the rest of the band as heroes and spokesmen for the awkward, the uncomfortable, the non-conformist.
This affinity for the downtrodden and angst-ridden came across in the lyrics, too. Amongst literary references and romantic devotion was a generous helping of self-deprecation (or, as less generous appraisals of the band would say, self-pity). The band’s reputation as Mancunian miserablists wallowing in their troubles is not entirely unearned - lines such as “I need advice, I need advice / Nobody ever looks at me twice” (“Miserable Lie”) and “I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving” (“Still Ill”) do nothing to contradict this view.
On the band’s subsequent albums, as well as 1983-1984’s glorious non-album singles “This Charming Man” (included on the US version and subsequent reissues of The Smiths), “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”, and “William, It Was Really Nothing”, the sorrow and discomfort were more frequently balanced with dry lyrical humour and brighter pop hooks, which are largely absent on the band’s debut LP. In comparison, The Smiths is almost entirely downbeat in tone, even on faster cuts like “What Difference Does it Make?”. The Moors Murders - referencing closer “Suffer Little Children” is, musically and lyrically, every bit as depressing as it sounds. However, it is only with hindsight, and seeing the dizzying heights that the band would reach mere months after the album’s release, that The Smiths can be found a little one-dimensional.
Despite the relatively homogenous tone, dynamics, and mixing of the album, there are enough instrumental hooks to make the band stand out among similar guitar-based acts. Andy Rourke’s defiant, strutting bass on the bitter and savage “You’ve Got Everything Now”, the mellow and restrained groove and subtle organ stabs of “I Don’t Owe You Anything”, and the sudden tempo change and switch from plaintive mourning to piercing frustration on “Miserable Lie”.
The highlight of the album comes at the beginning of Side B, which is home to what is possibly one of the greatest three-song runs of all time: “Still Ill”, “Hand in Glove”, and “What Difference Does it Make?”. These are three of the most uptempo songs on the album, as well as the most memorable. Johnny Marr’s formidable guitar riff on “Still Ill” twists and turns sharply around the beat in an unpredictable but effortlessly fitting way, behind Morrissey’s drawn-out, anguished wails. “Hand in Glove”, the band’s debut single, has every member of the band firing on full cylinders, and “What Difference Does it Make?”, with its guitar riff skipping relentlessly to Joyce and Rourke’s marching rhythm, is probably the most infectious song of this collection. All across the band’s repertoire, Marr’s keen musical ear and outstanding technical ability resulted in chord sequences and musical motifs as inventive as they were instantly enchanting.
The Smiths was a stellar debut from a band who had that rarest of combinations: a totally unique sound (Marr’s guitar alone is instantly recognisable, not to mention Morrissey’s vocals), yet the mass appeal needed to storm the pop charts and inspire generations of misfits.
Listen to the The Smiths on Spotify here.