The Smiths: The Complete Songs

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The Smiths

1984: Lord knows it would be the first time…

The Smiths What Difference Does It MakeWhat Difference Does It Make?
[single; found on The Smiths]

The Smiths were as much Johnny Marr’s band as they were Morrissey’s, and I will have no argument to the contrary. Sure, Your Arsenal and Vauxhall and I are wonderful records, but they’re not The Smiths. And that’s because there’s no Johnny Marr to be found (and to a slightly lesser extent, no Mike Joyce or Andy Rourke). The two — who have basically had nothing to do with each other since the band’s dissolution — were a once-in-a-lifetime partnership: Complementary halves to an explosive whole that no other singer/guitarist pairing of the post-punk era could replicate, let alone be in the same league (Aside: The judges will accept Buck and Stipe from the American delegation).

Lyrically, “What Difference Does It Make” is characteristic Moz fare: A one-sided relationship, prejudice, misplaced loyalty, guilt, possible homoeroticism and human failings, all rendered in taut, witty verse. But it’s the riff that drives the song — the riff absolutely makes it. This song could have been quieter and more intimate; it ended up driving and intense, instead. It’s The Smiths distilled into their most potent three minutes and 50 seconds. – JT

Back to the Old House
[B-side, “What Difference Does It Make”]

He’d rather not go back to the old house. Well, actually, he’d love to go back to the old house, but he remembers it for all he didn’t accomplish while he was there. The house itself is probably lovely. Well, it probably isn’t — Manchester in the ’70s was not known for its manicured lawns, and they had soot all over them. Morrissey’s ambivalence slowly unrolls over a mournful 6/8 riff, a testament to what he didn’t do or say to the person he adored from afar. His internal desolation mirrors his city’s, and maybe a spark of hope wouldn’t have made much of a difference anyway. – PP

These Things Take Time
[B-side, “What Difference Does It Make”; found on Hatful of Hollow]

Well look at that; another early Smiths track about sex. This time around, Mozzer meditates through the perspective of a youngster losing their virginity to a more experienced partner and all the confusion, embarrassment, and self-loathing that might come with that situation. Hopefully it was fun, too. – AK

The Smiths s/t

Reel Around the Fountain
[found on The Smiths]

So how do you start off one of the most influential and important debut albums ever released? Why, with a six-minute dirge about child abuse. Do these guys know how to party or what?! On paper it seems ridiculous, but the way in which it plays out is much more elegant and quietly devastating. The Smiths are not Xiu Xiu; you’ll get a vague impression of the horrific crimes at the center of the song, rendered in poetic verse against a marvelous arrangement — not primal scream therapy with a drum machine. And so when Morrissey sings, “It’s time the tale were told/ Of how you took a child/ And you made him old,” he conveys layers of pain and vulnerability in just a few lines. This is made all the more affecting through the song’s arrangement, which is one of the richest in their catalog — featuring not just one of Marr’s prettiest guitar performances, but the addition of both piano and Hammond organ. It’s bloody gorgeous.

Bold as might have been to begin their first proper album with a song as long, slow and dark as this one, it accomplishes what it sets out to: They’ve got your attention. Now marvel at how long they hold onto it. – JT

You’ve Got Everything Now
[found on The Smiths]

So where do you go after “Reel Around the Fountain”? You kick up the tempo, and run headlong into what ostensibly, looks like a rock album. Not that The Smiths ever played it so straight. But “You’ve Got Everything Now” is where Marr turns up his signature jangle, Morrissey engages in flights of falsetto, and the band assumes a level of energy that carries them through most of the remainder of the album — and their careers. Morrissey assumes the role of a once-glorious fuck-up, nostalgically musing, “Back at the old gray school/ I would win and you would lose.” But the punchline is in the title. Like so many of the schoolyard heroes in our lives, the narrator couldn’t adapt to adulthood, and the immaturity shows when he sneers, “I never did like your face.” – JT

Miserable Lie
[found on The Smiths]

“Miserable Lie” begins with tenderness and resolution, only to end with agitation and confusion. It’s a fitting arc for Morrissey, whose seemingly polite goodbye to a one-time lover gives way to doubt and pain; enough to justify labeling love itself as a miserable lie. It’s a song that only Morrissey could write, with a handful of classic lines, from the self-deprecating and hilarious “I look at yours, you laugh at mine” to the carnal “I’d like to seize your underwear” to a plea that fuels Morrissey’s sexual ambiguity: “Please stay with your own kind / And I’ll stay with mine.” Perhaps most memorably of all, Morrissey hits a desperate falsetto as he squeals, “I need advice, I need advice.” – DG

Pretty Girls Make Graves
[found on The Smiths]

I lost my faith in womanhood” sums up an openly hostile, sneering takedown of femininity, breeding, and frankly humanity in general. The song holds the position—lifted from Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums—that pretty girls have an easier time demanding and getting sex, thereby creating more eventual fodder for cemeteries. This might be Moz at his most mean-spirited, and peppering his falsetto throughout the band’s plangent skiffle (which is the nicest thing about this track) feels like Klaus Nomi fronting Mission of Burma. – AB

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle
[found on The Smiths]

The narrator is comforting a child through the gestalt of childhood fears. The common ones, you know, like ghosts, the bogey-man, looming monsters and… “There’ll be blood on the cleaver tonight“? The hell? Even though the narrator (taking pains not to identify him as “Morrissey” because it clearly isn’t) promises to salve the child’s anxieties, to “love you till the day I die,” something’s off about this arrangement of comfort. That’s when the narrator stars to slip up, when cold flashbacks interrupt him: “I’m only a beggar-man whom nobody owns/Oh, see how words as old as sin fit me like a glove.” Finally he tells the child he “did his best” for his mom, but… an elliptical ending, an unfinished cadence, and the kid’s probably scared shitless now, thanks a lot. Quick reads on “The Hand That Rocks That Cradle” claim that the narrator is abusing the child, but Morrissey’s confluence of conflicting emotions indicate the story’s not that cut-and-dried. The music behind him never alters from its basic three-chord progression; it stays maddeningly the same while questions of who should be feared and is qualified to protect remain unanswered. An almost unfairly powerful song. – PP

Still Ill
[found on The Smiths]

On “Still Ill,” Morrissey grapples with that most perplexing thing about desire: That we’re not in control of who, what, or how we’re attracted to sexually. It’s a stellar piece of poetry, and Moz’s emotional crooning makes for one of the best choruses on The Smiths. But the spotlight here is truly stolen by Marr’s driving, spunky guitar lick here, especially in turbulent, almost psychedelic intro and outro. – AK

I Don’t Owe You Anything
[found on The Smiths]

On a debut as strong — and as influential — as The Smiths’ first album, it’s easy to see how a song like “I Don’t Owe You Anything” can get a bit overlooked. It’s buried near the end, moves pretty slowly and never diverts much from its mid-tempo progression. It settles comfortably into indie lounge and stays there for four minutes. And it’s quite pretty — enough to make drummer Mike Joyce cry, in fact. But what it shares in common with so much of The Smiths’ first album is how dark it is. It’s a song of unrequited, or at least temporary delayed, love and lust, and the sinister reactions that desire can lead to. It all begins with some stolen wine, a knowing nod, and then… nothing. And that’s where things get ugly. For such a gentle, pretty song, it leads to a pretty horrific refrain: “I don’t owe you anything, no/ But you owe me something/ Repay me now.” – JT

Suffer Little Children
[found on The Smiths]

It is a terrible story. Between 1963 and 1965 in Greater Manchester, Myra Hindley and her companion Ian Brady abducted and murdered five youths, ages 10 to 17.  Some of them were sexually assaulted. Hindley and Brady buried their victims in shallow graves on Saddleworth Moor. The Moors murders, as the press called them, also had profound effect on Morrissey, who was a child when it was in the papers.

“Suffer Little Children,” one of the first songs Morrissey wrote with Johnny Marr, is a measured song, with a hypnotic guitar line and a doleful vocal, naming the then known children, Lesley Anne, John and Edward. Then, Morrissey adopts the collective voice from beyond the grave and promises to haunt Hindley and Brady “when you laugh.” The title comes from the Gospel According to Matthew, “Suffer little children and forbid them not, to come unto me, for such is the kingdom of heaven.” – SC

The Smiths Heaven Knows
Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now
[single; found on Hatful of Hollow]

There comes a point in young adulthood when you realize they’re not handing out door prizes. Responsibility is the hook by which you’re expected to assimilate to, or get incorporated by, the urban industrial complex. Morrissey sees it as marginalization, nothing more than crowd control, and that naturally means reversion into self-containment and three nights of (vegan) ramen a week. But even as tedium takes root he refuses to cover it up with facile, tactile solutions — i.e., a fuckbuddy: “What she asked of me at the end of the day — Caligula would have blushed.” Ever notice that Moz and escapism have never been photographed together? One of his most economical lyrics finds melancholy support from Marr’s rich chords and one of Andy Rourke’s best bass lines. Oh, the places you’ll go! – PP

Girl Afraid
[B-side, “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”; found on Louder Than Bombs]

Morrissey spends two long stanzas singing about frustrated relationships from the point of view of a woman and then a man. She can’t figure out why her guy won’t respond to her advances; he’s concerned the girl he wants is actually out of his league. With these disparate reasons why things feel so unfulfilling, I’m convinced Moz is looking at two completely unrelated people instead of two halves of the same couple. This is a quick-hit, sub-3:00 head-bopper, the instrumental interplay really reminding me of R.E.M. circa Fables of the Reconstruction. – AB

The Smiths William it was really nothing

William, It Was Really Nothing
[Single; found on Hatful of Hollow]

This sassy tune pits Moz against the institution of marriage, pleading for the titular William (possibly Billy Mackenzie of Associates) to not go through with his planned engagement. It’s a brilliant example of the sort of twisted, cheeky narrative that Morrissey’s always done best. But what stands out on this track is the shiny production; more uptempo than B-side (and shortly thereafter A-side) “How Soon Is Now,” yet boasting the same semi-electronic sheen — a rarity for The Smiths. – AK

Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want
[B-Side; found on Hatful of Hollow]

The ’80s equivalent of “Stay” by Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs: Anthem-like, concise, uncomplicated, issuing a request, apropos to everyone and everything, and over with in less than two minutes. And still time left over for a nice bouzouki instrumental, as if this tragedy wasn’t Greek enough to begin with. – PP

This Night Has Opened My Eyes
[found on Hatful of Hollow]

It begins with the sacrifice of a child and then ends with the line “I’m not sad.” And what lies in between is lost youth, hopelessness and an all-too tragic consequence of what probably felt like magic at the time. Funny how sex so often goes awry in Morrissey’s lyrics, but here there seems to be a genuine sadness rather than a smirking cynicism. It helps that the song itself is among the band’s prettiest, which makes the emotion so much more palpable.  – JT

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