Friday, June 10, 2011

The Smiths-Strangeways, Here We Come

Originally Written and Posted at on 1/28/09.

After the release of the double-compilation album Louder Than Bombs in early 1987, the Smiths' commercial profile was risen three years after they released their first album. Already a band that's becoming popular with hit singles and albums, it seemed likely that great things were coming for them with help from major label EMI and their old indie label Rough Trade. However, not everything was great with the band as they faced the end while were preparing to record their fourth and final album.

Pressures from their labels intensified where in a recent rock documentary, guitarist Johnny Marr stated that the labels were wanting them to become the next U2. In Marr's own word, not everyone wanted to be U2. At the same time, the relationship between Johnny Marr and vocalist/lyricist Morrissey was becoming strained due to creative and personal differences. Recordings with producer Stephen Street in the spring of 1987 were problematic as Morrissey wanted to do more traditional style of pop music to Marr's dismay. In response, Marr would work with other acts and artists including the Talking Heads and Bryan Ferry. At the same time, business issues were hurting the band as they continued to record material including B-sides that would later appear in singles to come out for their fourth and final album entitled Strangeways, Here We Come.

Produced by Johnny Marr, Morrissey, and Stephen Street, Strangeways, Here We Come is a broader album filled with orchestral arrangements made by Johnny Marr's synthesizers with Morrissey providing lyrics that range from the personal to more dramatic narrative stories. With the rhythm section of drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke in tact, more experiments with drum machines by Stephen Street and a fuller sound in production would give the Smiths room to expand their simple sound. The result would be a graceful bow from one of Britain's great bands.

The album opens with A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours opens with 12-bar blues-based piano and Morrissey's atmospheric, choral-like vocal that becomes clear to the song's thumping rhythm provided by drummer Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke's wobbly bass. With a break of rapid percussion shakes and Morrissey's harrowing lyrics that are accompanied by Marr's melodic-flourish keyboards and piano tracks. The single I Started Something I Couldn't Finish is an upbeat song that features Marr's growling guitar washes meshed with chiming melodies, Joyce's pounding beats supplemented by Stephen Street's clapping drum programming, a horn section, and Rourke's thumping bass. With Morrissey's calm vocals and witty lyrics, it's one of the band's best singles that features a superb sound and Morrissey's unique sense of humor. Death Of A Disco Dancer is a haunting mid-tempo ballad led by Rourke's eerie bass line, Joyce's smooth, thumping beats, and warbling sounds from Marr's guitar and Morrissey's eerie vocals. With Morrissey providing morose lyrics and a coda that has him playing broken piano and shimmering, eerie arrangements led by Marr's guitar.

The single Girlfriend In A Coma features Rourke's twangy bass line, Joyce's smooth, thumping drums, and Morrissey's calm vocals about a man struggling with his comatose girlfriend wonder if she'll pull through as he's dealing with guilt. Featuring Marr's arpeggio, chime-laden guitars and striking string arrangement, it's a short but poignant song that is filled with Morrissey's superb lyrics and Marr's unique presentation. Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before is another classic track that was supposed to be a single but scrapped. The mid-tempo song with rumbling rhythms, Marr's jangly guitar washes, and Morrissey's soft but engaging vocals filled with witty lyrics about love and heartbreak. It's a song that features everything that made the Smiths so brilliant. Another single is the ballad Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me that opens with a somber piano track by Marr featuring people talking in the background. After nearly two minutes, the song becomes this haunting, mid-tempo ballad with thumping rhythms filled by Rourke's low bass rumbles, Joyce's pummeling beats, and Marr's arpeggio flourishes. With Morrissey's dramatic vocals filled with melancholic-laden lyrics, it's one of the band's most poignant ballads.

Unhappy Birthday is a smooth, upbeat track filled with bouncy rhythms led by Marr's washy guitar riffs and Morrissey's somber vocals filled with morose lyrics. The song features a unique song structure with moments of Joyce's rumbling drums and no drums as Marr brings in soft guitar slides in the background. Paint A Vulgar Picture is a foot-stomping track led by Joyce's bass drum beat and Marr's jangly guitar wash. Morrissey starts to sing calmly with lyrics that are truly direct towards the music industry with witty words and a snarl. Featuring Marr's superlative, ringing guitar solo in the song's bridge, it's a unique track that proves that Morrissey can have a sense of humor on something that he's angry about.

Death At One's Elbow opens with a motorcycle rumbling with clap-driven beats by Stephen Street before a fast, rapid rhythm led by Mike Joyce's drums, Andy Rourke's thumping bass, Marr's washy guitar jangles, and Morrissey's smooth, wailing vocals. With witty lyrics about death, it's a wonderful little number from the Smiths going to the style of old dance-hall rhythms and melodies. The album closer is I Won't Share You, an acoustic ballad led by Johnny Marr's mandolin washes and Morrissey's superb yet somber vocals filled with melancholic-driven lyrics. With its rich production and simple performance, it's a fitting closer for the album and the band.

Released in September of 1987, the album came out one month after guitarist Johnny Marr decided to leave the band. Marr's departure would eventually cause the Smiths to disband altogether as they released three singles before the end of the year featuring B-sides they recorded from the sessions for the album. The album itself would become a hit reaching number two in the U.K. charts and number 55 in the U.S. charts. Despite its success, it was a bittersweet moment for music fans as the Smiths helped save music for a brief period of time. At the same time as the production team of Stock, Aitken, and Waterman were creating hits that were ruling the charts. The Smiths did lay the ground work for the British indie revolution in the years to come as in 1989, another Manchester band in the Stone Roses would take indie music as far as it can go.

Following the Smiths' dissolution, Morrissey would embark on a successful solo career that has lasted for several years. While guitarist Johnny Marr embarked on several projects including Electronic with Joy Division/New Order guitarist Bernard Sumner and playing guitar for several acts including Modest Mouse. Hopes for a Smiths reunion still lingered but a 1996 court battle with drummer Mike Joyce over recording and performance royalties dampened those dreams. Joyce's victory against Morrissey and Johnny Marr only strained relations while Andy Rourke settled with Marr and Morrissey for some money that he was given. While best-of compilations released in 1992, 1995, 2000, and a recent 2008 one supervised by Marr and Morrissey helped their profile. Plans for a Smiths reunion seems impossible with Morrissey's solo career still thriving and Johnny Marr's music projects still doing well while Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce also embarked on different projects.

Strangeways, Here We Come is a superb, rich, and haunting album from the Smiths. While it doesn't reach the heights of The Queen Is Dead in terms of its production and songwriting stature, it's still an album that features some amazing work from the band. It's an album that truly has a feeling of an end while proving that the Smiths are going to go out with their head high. Thanks in large part to a few singles and album cuts that makes this record essential. In the end, Strangeways, Here We Come is a magnificent album from the Smiths.

(C) thevoid99 2011

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