Sunday, 27 January 2008

Top 100 Albums - #44: The Very Best Of The Smiths (2001)

The Smiths' second and final entry comes in the shape of another compilation, released in 2001 and widely rubbished by both the band and the music press. After the release of Hatful Of Hollow (1984, #97), The Smiths began to crest a wave of success, both commercial and critical, which would last until the end of their career. Their third album overall, Meat Is Murder (1985), was more stridently political in its social commentary and attacks on modern Britain, reaching #1 on the U.K. Album Chart. The follow-up, The Queen Is Dead (1986) produced a spate of hit singles and has become regarded as their best work. But not all was well in the band; the exhaustive touring schedule, coupled with bassist Andy Rourke's heroin addiction, had caused tempers to fray. After the release of the more experimental Strangeways, Here We Come (1987), Johnny Marr left the group, citing artistic differences; after failing to find a replacement, the band folded, only reuniting to settle a royalties dispute in 1996.

This compilation opens with 'Panic', a non-album single included on the compilation album The World Won't Listen (1987). Being a single, this feels brighter and more spacious than an album track, but don't think for a moment that that saps the song of all its power. Morrissey's lyrics are potent and Johnny Marr's guitar work is bright and cheerful, the perfect foil for Mozza's misery and irony. The use of children's voices in the final third might well come across as cheesy but because this is only 2:20 long, they're not around long enough for you to complain.

'The Boy With The Thorn In His Side' is a different, and much better, kettle of fish. Taken from The Queen Is Dead, this is 3 minutes and 17 seconds of pure and glorious melancholy, juxtoaposed with musical flamboyancy. Morrissey's lyrics are delivered with a distressed abandon which sits perfectly aside Marr's jangly guitar. It's difficult to pick out any one great line from this - it's an holistic piece, the beauty of it is in the finished whole. Rourke's bass thunders along under Mozza's falsetto and Joyce's dynamic yet simple drumming anchors the band. It's the four miseries at their best.

'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now' is lifted from Hatful Of Hollow sees a return to a more standard sound - it's slower, drearier and steeped in a great deal more irony. There's a fair bit of hyperbole in this one, and you don't have to look far to find it; lines like What she asked of me/ At the end of the day/ Caligula would have blushed are brimming full of that mid-1980s flair. As I said in my review of Hatful, this is an easier listener than many Smiths songs, but perhaps it's a good thing that it's as short as it is, otherwise the mood can become overpowering and lapse into self-parody.

Now, onto 'Ask'. Ah, this is much more like it. Lifted from Louder Than Bombs (1987), this is an in-your-face, rockabilly-esque onslaught of sheer jauntiness. There are very few Smiths songs which you can dance to - and this is one of them. The lyrics might tiptoe into the surreal - Spending warm summer days indoors/ Writing frightening verse/ To a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg - but don't worry about a thing. As on 'The Boy With The Thorn In His Side', it feels like the whole band are working together and enjoying themselves. This is a proper 3-minute single, which packs great punch. It's already the best song on here.

Unfortunately, 'Bigmouth Strikes Again' is a massive let-down after that 1950s dance hall euphoria. This does feel like Morrissey is repeating himself, trying to come across as all personal and human when in fact this undermines everything. It doesn't matter how direct he is in his lyrics, Morrissey's role as the anti-anti-hero is built upon a distance from ordinary people, which works because of his knack of spotting human flaws. Marr feels constricted on her, and the helium-inspired backing vocals are just dire.

Being a compilation, it is inevitable that 'How Soon Is Now?' would be on here somewhere. The opening distortion and two-note riff remains as distinctive and as recognisable now as it did in 1984. Morrissey is at his tortured, slurry best, tripping over the end of lines like a drunken Paul Simon. If there is one thing wrong with this particular version, it is that Rourke's bass is almost unintelligible - you can barely hear it except in the instrumental breaks, and that's a shame. 'This Charming Man', also taken from Hatful Of Hollow, does its job with no flourishes. In fact, this is a preferable version, being bereft of the mildly annoying intro on the album.

'What Difference Does It Make?' is another 'typical' Smiths song - drenched in apathy, irony and lugubriousness. Unlike the version from the John Peel sessions, the intro is clearer, and with the slight fade-in it's more fitting to the mood of the piece. It's also a tone lower, which just works wonders - for any song there is an ideal key, and this is it. And this trend of four-star praise continues with 'William, It Was Really Nothing'. As derided as they may be, the people who put this album together have taken the best out of Hatful Of Hollow (and there is a lot to choose from). This reveals the homoerotic, Oscar Wilde-style inspiration in Mozza. Like 'This Charming Man', you can just visualise him camping it up for a video in one of his loose Italian shirts.

Here the praise comes to a sudden stop. 'Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others', the closer from The Queen Is Dead, is and always been a difficult song to live with. For starters, there's the VERY annoying fade-up-and-down at the start, allegedly a mistake in the mastering process; the story goes that the producers were looking to produce a rough, 'spoiled' mix to send to the record company, but they ran out of time and sent the master off without reversing the changes.¹ But even if you overlook this, this feels like a half-arsed attempt. Even without the intro it's too long, and Morrissey's lyrics, when you can hear them, don't really go anywhere.

On 'Girlfriend In A Coma', there can be none of the earlier complaints about Rourke - if you can't hear him in the intro, then you are officially deaf. This is the first track on here from Strangeways, Here We Come, the favourite album of all four band members. And you can see why; everything is very tight and there is a clear progression in the music and the lyrics. Then we step back in time to 'Hand In Glove', the band's very first single. Unlike the version on Hatful Of Hallow, this one - taken from The Smiths - has been stripped of the pointless fade-in at the start. If only if they had seen the sense to remove the harmonica at the start, then this might have been a mildly more compelling song. Is it stands, it remains relatively uncompelling.

'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out' is frequently cited as one of The Smiths' best song. Morrissey certainly thinks so, retaining it as the closer for his recent solo tours. And it was recently voted the 4th greatest indie anthem of all time.² There is a lot to like here - the more orchestral, rounded sound is a sharp contrast to their earlier, earthier material. But being a love song, or as close as the band came to them, it fits well. The lyrics flow well, and the ending is very well-executed. It's a brilliant song, but not quite as brilliant as 'Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want'. It's simple, it's stark and it feels worldly-worn, the very mood which The Smiths espoused. Some might not like the Spanish-sounding guitars at the end, but that doesn't remove anything from this extroardinary 2-minute masterpiece.

'That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore' is the first track on here from Meat Is Murder, and it's a pretty good choice. It may be more rambling in its structure and less immaculate in its execution, but as a mood-setter it's great. Marr's guitar sounds great - the acoustic is taut and aggressive, while the guitar is bright, mellow and full of life. The closing lines I've seen this happen in other people's lives/ And now it's happening in mine are another example of lyrical greatness from one of the true greats.

Back to The Queen Is Dead, and 'I Know It's Over'. Like the previous track, this does go on a bit too long for it to qualify as a classic. Nevertheless, all the ingredients are here. The middle section especially deserves plaudits, as Morrissey, backed only by the simplest of beats from Joyce, completely lets rip, spilling his soul over the song. But it trembles in the shadows of 'Sheila Take A Bow'. Another offcut from Louder Than Bombs, this may come across a light remix of 'Ask'. But with its brave brass opening and Marr's glorious acoustic touches, this is so much more. This is another jaunty piece of perfection - sure, with its strings it might not be as earthly as some of the stuff on here, but it's so much more accessible and substantial without being over-intellectual. Smashing stuff.

Back to Strangeways for a second, and oh dear. 'I Started Something I Couldn't Finish' is pure self-parody, with its spaced-out production, insubstancial lyrics and tired riffs. Morrissey's slurred grunt at 1:19, and again a minute later, will make your toes curl, and in general his performance is indicative of the worst side of his solo career (see my review of Ringleader Of The Tormentors (2006, #79). 'Still Ill' is better, if only because the dreaded harmonica present on Hatful has been removed. With that fatal touch of country gone, you are allowed to appreciate the decent lyrics without looking like an imbecile.

'Shakespeare's Sister' is a return to rockability, with touches of 'How Soon Is Now?' distortion in the intro. This is quick-paced, raunchy and full of life and abandon at the same time, surely a superb feat for a band who violently oscillated from one to the other on most of their songs. This is very underrated lyrically, perhaps because of its short length (2:10). Lines like I thought if you had an acoustic guitar/ It meant you were a protest singer are straight out of the top drawer.

The same cannot be said, however, for 'Shoplifters Of The World Unite'. Released in 1987, it has been compared to T. Rex's 'Children Of The Revolution', and was almost banned after parents complained that it encouraged their children to steal.³ In spite of both of these - well, certainly the second - this has relatively little going for it. It feels like a hollow pop song, complete with all the jangly chords of a late-1980s power ballad. The last two songs continue this faltering form. 'Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me' is a very solid, very morbid piece which sticks in your heart and refuses to let you. It feels dark and heavy, just as The Smiths should be. On the flip side, 'Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before' feels clunky, clich├ęd and devoid of any hooks. That said, it is a damn sight better than Mark Ronson's garish travesty-of-a-remix.

The main problem with The Smiths is nothing to do with the content of their songs, or the stereotypes which surround them as a band. The main difficulty is that they are at heart a singles band, which makes albums difficult to judge. It is the reason why something like The Queen Is Dead, hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time, comes across as skittish, indecisive and ultimately disappointing. Sure, The Smiths were not a concept album band, nor should they have been, but no Smiths album sustains your interest beyond the first few songs, not even the hyper-political Meat Is Murder. That is why the best way to approach The Smiths is through compilations - the best songs on here are from Louder Than Bombs - and that is why it is this album which is The Smiths' highest entry.

3.87 out of 5
References
¹ Roddy Ashworth, 'Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others', http://www.oz.net/~moz/. Accessed on February 17 2008.

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