But don’t forget the songs
That made you cry
And the songs that saved your life
Yes, you’re older now
And you’re a clever swine,
But they were the only ones who ever stood by you.
1. Delusions of Grandeur in a Trying, Tiring Time
I made a pact with Louder than Bombs when I was 19 years old. I proclaimed my utter faithfulness and devotion to the worn cassette copy I owned, because I knew Morrissey was asking for, and expected no less from me. I promised that if anyone ever mentioned Louder than Bombs around me, whether their tone was one of curiosity or spite, I would praise the album in the most hyperbolic, extravagant terms imaginable. I made this promise because Morrissey had touched the lonely and vulnerable part of me, the part that I’d hidden from everyone, including myself, for too long. I felt like Morrissey had saved the better part of me, and I owed him no less than if he had knocked me out of the path of an oncoming train.
It was 1995 and the Smiths had been split up for eight years. I had ignored them until then because I had foolishly believed the prevailing myths about Morrissey and the Smiths: that they were joyless and pretentious. I was at the time joyless and pretentious myself, a lonely and mixed-up fellow, no more fun to be than to be around. I had dropped out of community college, been left behind by the prettiest girl in the world (at the time), and was back living with my Mom in the boring town I had grown up in. You know the old joke: “I had Mono for a year, but I didn’t know it because I thought I was just depressed”? Well, that really happened to me (I assure you, that joke wasn’t funny anymore). It was a tiring and trying time.
I had gotten Louder than Bombs from the aforementioned pretty girl, and began listening to it in earnest, partially in hopes of absorbing its mysteries and winning her back. I wrote her absurdly long letters that were a William S. Burroughs’ influenced pastiche of cut-up Smiths lyrics and thinly veiled pleading. As I listened to the album over and over again, though, Morrissey’s magic began to work on me. He made me see my sadness, my loneliness, and my misanthropy in a new way, in the reflected light of his effortless glamour and grace. I began to see the aloof, forlorn way in which I carried myself as a badge of honor. Being an outsider and feeling like a misfit seemed almost heroic, as if Morrissey and I had surmounted great odds together just by being shunned and ignored by everyone. He lashed out at what hurt and suffocated me (humdrum towns, shyness, lovers passing by) while coyly flattering my wounded vanity; I felt you had to be pretty smart and sensitive just to get the Smiths in the first place. I began to feel that Morrissey and me were alike: complex and confused, but essentially right about things. He eased the deep despair that I felt, transforming it with a simple, guarded hope: Morrissey had felt what I had and still turned out to be a great man, so I might be a grand underdog as well, downtrodden and even self-loathing, but in the end, worth cheering for.
2. If it’s not Love, then it’s the BOMB
Louder than Bombs is a collection of singles, Peel sessions, “rarities” and B-sides that came out in the U.S. in 1987. Although the Smiths’ proper studio albums are all outstanding, their singles were the format in which they did their best work. The problem is that the original singles are difficult to find, and the collections repeat the same songs -give or take a few -that are on other albums. It is the frustrating lot of the Smiths fan to buy many songs they already have just to get a few that they don’t. That said, Louder than Bombs is the best album to get first . It has 24 songs, 8 more than its UK counterpart The World Won’t Listen, and covers the period from 1983 through late 1986, almost the entire life of the band. It is a well-sequenced collection, aptly showing the many sides of the band, without a single bad track. The first 12 songs are all classics, masterpieces without peer in all of music and the best, most consistent run of songs in the entire Smiths catalogue. It begins with “Is it Really So Strange”:
Oh yes you can kick me,
And you can punch me,
And you can break my face
But you won’t change the way I feel
`cause I love you.
And is it really so strange?
Is it really so strange?
Is it really so, really so strange?
I say NO, you say YES
(But you will change your mind.)
Without shortchanging the band (especially Johnny Marr’s brilliant guitar) the best part of the Smiths, to me, is Morrissey’s lyrics. For every situation that arises in your life, there is a perfect Morrissey lyric to elevate the moment into the realm of poetry. For the new Smiths fan (and some of us old ones, too) it is impossible to resist quoting Morrissey’s lyrics at every opportunity. But, as you can see from the above excerpt, the lyrics sometimes seem trite on the printed page, because much of the magic of Morrissey lies in his vocal delivery. He can croon exquisitely and then suddenly delve into a growl; he can tickle you with irony or an ostentatious trill, and then reach a heart-rending pitch of urgency. He saves potentially hackneyed phrases at the last moment (a talent I desperately wish I had) by spinning them on their head or shading them with melancholy or mockery. He is a master of making you expect one thing, only to startle you with something else entirely. And, he makes cliches ring true again –like all great artists do- with his wit, his melodramatic flair, his fearlessness, and his compassion for the misfit, the hooligan, the shoplifter, and the sad schoolgirl alike, seeing himself (and Us) in all of them:
The second track “Sheila Take a Bow”:
How can someone so young
Sing words so sad?
Sheila take a, Sheila take a bow
Boot the grime of this world in the crotch, dear.
And the next, “Shoplifters of the World, Unite”:
I tried living in the real world, instead of a shell
But I was bored before I even began
I was bored before I even began
Shoplifters of the world
Unite and take over.
These lines, penned and delivered by Morrissey almost twenty years ago, still strike me as fresher, more honest, and more in touch with my everyday life than anything else in all of music or literature. Booting the grime of this world in the crotch is something I wish to do every day, and I was bored with this article before I even began it. It may seem that I am overstating my case to say that Morrissey is the greatest writer in the English language of the past fifty years, but when I hear him sing his exquisite lines, I can’t deny it. Like the gentleman in England said: scrap all the Booker prizewinners in the world for one Smiths song.
The second half of the album is only slightly less impressive than the first, because of a few tiny flaws: an ill-advised instrumental (“Oscillate wildly”), a cover of a 60’s pop tune that falls a little flat (“Golden Lights”), and a last song that is so heartbreakingly beautiful and sad that you will long to kill yourself before it is over (“Asleep”). These are mere trifles, though, because you get “Ask”:
Because if it’s not Love
Then it’s the bomb
That will bring us together
And “Stretch Out and Wait”:
Amid Concrete and clay
And general decay
Nature must still find a way
So ignore all the codes of the day
Let your juvenile impulses sway
This way and that way
This way and that way
And you sway to the music: the impeccable, scarcely believable tunes that Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke, and Mike Joyce concocted. You have to hear them to believe them, and you’ve got to ask yourself: how do they do manage so many emotional tones at once? The music is funny and sad, heartbreaking and joyful, brooding and light, deadly serious and utterly frivolous, all in the space of a three-minute song. These are some of the catchiest melodies in all of music, and yet the songs are deeply unconventional in structure, in tone, and in effect. It is the sneering of the New York Dolls mixed with the breezy bounce of 60’s pop. It is punk, jangly guitar pop, and early rock and roll meeting and mixing in strange and powerful ways. Without Morrissey, the Smiths would’ve been an incredible band in their own right. With Morrissey, they became the greatest rock band in the world since the Beatles.
The passing of time
And all of its sickening crimes
Is making me sad again
Looking at the Smiths, twenty years later, is looking at a wonderful relic from a long lost age, and I’d give anything to have them back. I know it is always easy to romanticize the past, but seeing a young, fresh-faced Morrissey and Johnny Marr in his ridiculous beret sunglasses makes me long strongly for a past that seems so far away today. In the age of direct marketing on Amazon.com and instant downloading, I long for the days of searching record stores for 12″ import singles. In the age of worthless bands talking about how edgy and in-your-face their fashion designers are, I long for Morrissey and his hearing aid and back-pocket full of flowers. In the age of empty-headed hipsters mouthing off endlessly about nothing, I long for Morrissey’s self-deprecating, bookish wit and social sensibility. In the age of the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, I long for the Smiths.
*After Louder than Bombs, I recommend getting The Queen is Dead, Strangeways, Here We Come, The Smiths, and then Meat is Murder, in that order. Also, rent the video The Complete Picture, and get Morrissey’s first solo album Viva Hate. If you can’t find Louder than Bombs, get Hatful of Hollow, or in a pinch the Singles collection will do.
Similar albums/albums influenced:
Suede – Sci-Fi Lullabies
Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour Of Bewilderbeast
The Verve – A Northern Soul