Being around as they were for only 5 years, The Smiths eventually released more compilations than actual albums - the only four actual ones being The Smiths (1984), Meat Is Murder (1985), The Queen Is Dead (1986) and Strangeways, Here We Come (1987). Hatful Of Hollow consists of four studio sessions for BBC Radio 1 at various points in 1983, along with two singles and their respective B-sides. Helped on by the success of early singles like 'Hand In Glove', 'This Charming Man' and 'What Difference Does It Make?', and much favourable publicity, The Smiths by the release of their first album in early 1984 had a dedicated fanbase and the public patronage of radio greats like John Peel.
Hatful Of Hollow begins with 'William, It Was Really Nothing', a song of considerable homoerotic impulse and the ideal showcase for Morrissey's falsetto. His lyrics speak of existentialist abandon - And everybody's got to live their life/ And God knows I've got to know mine - and the song ends fittingly. 'What Difference Does It Make?', a different version to that released as a single - probab;ly from the John Peel session - starts badly with too much fade, but there are interesting variations in key from Johnny Marr. Mike Joyce's drumming is precise and he does well not to encroach on Morrissey's voice at the critical moments. The only downer is the faded out ending, which is irritated on most songs.
'These Things Take Time' is the first track on Hatful which falls a little short of the mark. It starts jauntily enough, with Marr's guitar setting a bright yet ironic mood. The bass work from Andy Rourke is also very strong and prominent, in this case a good send, as it compensates for Morrissey, who on this occassion is being lazy, both lyrically and vocally. Thankfully, before one can loose faith, 'This Charming Man' comes on and the mind is filled with images of Morrissey swining gladioli around on Top Of The Pops. Again, it's different to the single version: it's sparser, the rhythm section is quieter, and Marr is playing too happily and too quickly. Nevertheless, Mozza (falsetto absent on this occasion) delivers the homoerotic lyrics with brio and panache - one can see him now, swanning about in all his ironic-camp glory.
Now we come to 'How Soon Is Now?'. Great title, for a start. The distinctive opening (some complicated accident involving two different amps and a lot of distortion), which many have attacked as filler, in fact acts as the perfect lead-in to Marr's distinctive two-note riff. Morrissey fluctuates between a sophisticated crooner and a tortured Romantic, while all the time Messrs. Rourke and Joyce keep it all together with simple drums and cool base lines. The song, which includes the amazing lines, So you go and you stand on your own/ And you leave on your own/ And you go home/ And you cry/ And you want to die, was recently voted Britain's second-favourite in terms of lyrics (the winner, incidentally, was 'One' by U2 - perhaps deservedly).¹
'Handsome Devil' takes up the tempo again, and it seems that Morrissey's flirtation with homosexuality is over for the time being. Lines like Let me get my hands/ On your mammary glands and There's more to life that books you know/ But not much more speak of sexuality, lechery and straightforward apathy about an intellectual approach to life. Joyce provides the rhythm, his simple snare work being enough to bring out the best in Marr.
It is from hereon in that the band slowly goes to sleep. 'Hand In Glove', The Smiths' debut single, fades in with a bad harmonica part (see #99 for my views on harmonica playing). The song is too choatic, with Morrissey's vocals suffering to the benefit of the other members. In any case, the lyrics are, relatively speaking, not really worth your complete attention. The harmonica fetish continues on 'Still Ill', turning what was or could have been a good song of reckless abandon - I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving/ England is mine, it owes me a living - in a spoilt gem which begins like a mainstream country song, and once that impression is on your mind, it is difficult to pay attention to the (generally good) lyrics.
'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now' tries harder, and with the harmonica cast aside it's an easier listener (though The Smiths are hardly EasyListening, pun intended). The song has some good lyrical highlights, such as the inspirational What she asked of me, at the end of the day/ Caligula would have blushed, but in general this is too repetitive and by now Morrissey's falsetto is starting to grate at the nerves. Much better is the lesser-known 'This Night Has Opened My Eyes'; Morrissey is allowed more space for his simple but deep lyrics, the chorus is more memorable, and Marr adds some guitar work reminscent of Gaucho-era Steely Dan to complete this diamond in what has so far been a rough album.
Things soon return to normal, average service with 'You've Got Everything Now'. Both the subject matter and the lyrics are clichéd: Morrissey would later handle this better with 'We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful' from solo album Your Arsenal (1994). And again, his falsetto is both annoying and unnecessary. 'Accept Yourself' continues in much the same, subdued and indifferent style, and though on this occasion the lyrics are better - and Marr's acoustic work welcome - it is only above-average as an overall product, not work a second look for non-cultists.
So now, with the traditional mid-album dip over, the final four tracks manage to match the openers for quality. 'Girl Afraid' has a very good opening and Marr's chord progressions, possibly on pedal steel guitar, have an American influence which fits the tone of the song very well. With Mozza now under control, 'Back To The Old House' changes the mood; the electric guitar becomes sombre acoustic, Morrissey is stark and open (if a little repetitive), and while both Rourke and Joyce keep out of this one, it is not so detrimental as it may seem on the surface. This song has a similar feel to 'I Won't Share You', the final track of Strangeways, Here We Come about Morrissey's relationship with Marr; and perhaps there is something of that message in this song too. 'Reel Around The Fountain', while rockier with the good drums, still find Mozza in a sparse state lyrically, giving it a deliberately hollow (and deeply attractive) feel to the song.
Talk about leaving the best 'til last. The closer, 'Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want', is simple, had stark lyrics, and features a mandolin which adds atmosphere and is a great way to close this melancholy album, with a worldly worn song which may also be about Marr and Morrissey, albeit in mildly happier times in their lives and careers.
Being a compilation album, Hatful Of Hollow has no unifying message or 'concept' which characterised its successors, nor are there any threads of developing themes which emerge without in-depth listening and analysis. It is also far too long. Nevertheless, this is a good album to dip into, containing some of the finest stuff The Smiths never released. This is an album for devotees, in the sense that those who buy it just for the versions of the singles will be disappointed. But, with time, and energy, Hatful Of Hollow will grow on you, if you give it the chance - and the patience.
3.69 out of 5
¹ Paul Lewis, 'Britain's best-loved lyricist? Bono's the One', The Guardian, 18 April 2006 - available at http://arts.guardian.co.uk/news/story/0,,1755768,00.html. Accessed on July 11 2007.