30 Years Ago: The Smiths Turn Pain Into Whimsy on ‘The Queen Is Dead’
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There are two ways to look at The Queen Is Dead, which turns 30 years old today. On one hand, it’s an exceptional record from the Smiths with a few clunkers — making those who regard it as the best album of all time overly swooned by outstanding cuts like the title track and the perfect “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.” The other line of thinking has it the pure encapsulation of English life as the ’80s went over the hump; not entirely despondent and staring at the ground with hopes it would open up and officially get on with the whole “eternity in hell” thing, but that feeling juxtaposed with wry bouts of humor at the absurdity of life while longing for some sort of affection from a kindred soul.
The band were on top of their game, evident on “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” as it grabs the listener by the collar from guitarist Johnny Marr’s iconic opening stuttering strum, and then holds on for dear life throughout three minutes of energetic harmony. The aforementioned “There Is a Light…” soars sonically, complementing Morrissey’s ode to the fairytale of dying by a soulmate’s side — or at least an object of youthful obsession. “I Know It’s Over” is expectedly maudlin, a slow burner that wouldn’t be out of place on a Roy Orbison release circa Crying, played completely straight, leaving little doubt to the authenticity of the heartbreak.
When the tempo is raised, along with Morrissey’s whimsy, it can be a downright uplifting affair, despite the somber subject matter — a contrast which adds to the brilliance and charm of “Cemetry Gates” and “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side.” It’s what made the Smiths so appealing in the first place; sunny-side up melodies belied – but not betrayed – by the wistful nature of the lines spouted effortlessly about lifting from Irish poets, blatant trolling of religious taboos and the always-in-season abject pain of loneliness.
Hindsight being what it is, the droll disposition of Steven Patrick Morrissey has been well established. But at the time of The Queen Is Dead, jaunty hilarity like “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” was considered absurdity when in reality it was probably due to a never-good combination of inordinately critical press and fawning fans egging on Mozzer to indulge his wry lyrical silliness. It’s become expected camp by now, though the mere existence of, for instance, the jangly “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” on The Queen Is Dead is borderline meritless, a black mark on what could’ve been a flawless piece of work.
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