Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘Strangeways, Here We Come' by The Smiths.
There is often disagreement about The Smiths’ greatest moment. Some would argue it is ‘The Queen Is Dead’ whilst others would argue it is ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ and while both are marvellous records for their own unique reasons, in this sonic celebrity death match there can only be one winner.
And that victor is ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’- not only is it the finest Smiths album, it is probably the finest swan song by any group since The Beatles’ ‘Abbey Road’.
‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ is the proverbial lightbulb, flickering brightest before the dim. It is simultaneously the high tide and death knell of the most important British band of the 1980s. It is the sound of two musical visionaries diverging, captured in amber for posterity.
This disturbance in the force can be felt straight away on opening track A Rush And A Push and The Land Is Ours; the unthinkable has transpired and if it was wasn’t for the fact it had been committed to tape nobody would believe that it had in fact transpired. The Smiths are sans guitar.
Replaced instead by jauntily eerie keyboard chords which chime as Morrissey sings about ghosts and how "There's too much caffeine in your bloodstream, and a lack of real spice in your life," before lamenting, “Oh, but don't mention love I'd hate the strain of the pain again.” Finally, he eventually implores what’s quite possibly the ghost of Oscar Wilde to “Phone me, phone me, phone me” like a love struck teenager.
I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish melds a horn section with Ziggy Stardust-esque guitar spray, while Morrissey pontificates superbly overhead about his shortcomings to the point that he can be heard asking to take another pass at the vocal at the end of the song.
However, Morrissey wasn’t so shy on Death of A Disco Dancer, providing piano - for the first and last time on a Smiths song - on the track’s jammed-out coda as Mike Joyce hammers home elucidated rolls and Marr weaves the track into a swirling crescendo.
Girlfriend in A Coma sees Morrissey deliver one of his most successful comedy lyrics, the dainty fretwork of Marr’s guitar playing the straight-man to Morrissey’s Carry On In A Coma hospital caper. Marr would later claim that the single’s B-Side, a cover of Cilla Black’s Work Is A Four-Letter Word, was the reason that he left The Smiths.
The comedy continues with farcical references to how the high-speed intersection of crossbar and testicals could drive a shy boy Buddhist to terrorism and other ludicracies - Stop Me If You Think that You’ve Heard This One Before became an instant classic in The Smiths canon.
The creative fork in the road is further edified by Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me, its two minute piano-led instrumental creating a stark distinction between where Marr wants to go and where Morrissey needs to be.
The despair in Marr’s chord progression was of course like a moth to the flame of Morrissey’s maudlin heart. He didn’t miss the opportunity to cement his place as the high priest of loneliness and despair - teenage or otherwise - with a stunningly emotive take on what it’s like to feel unlovable.
Unhappy Birthday is Morrissey at his cutting lyrical best; about as subtle as Ross Geller’s secret 'middle finger' gesture but with a significantly more potent payload. When Morrissey says 'fuck you' to someone he used to know he does it in style. “I’ve come to wish you an unhappy birthday ‘cause you’re evil and you lie. And if you should die, I may feel slightly sad but I won’t cry.”
In light of Morrissey’s post-Smiths practice with his own back-catalogue, the dead star on the record company’s hands in Paint A Vulgar Picture has taken on new meaning. It could be argued that Morrissey, by his own hands, has become the very thing he once derided by commissioning new artwork and reordering the running order of his old solo albums.
Either way, Paint A Vulgar Picture has not aged well. Neither has the just about passable romp of Death At One’s Elbow which feels like a meek repetition of The Smiths' former glories.
However, ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ ends on a high with a low, in the shape of I Won’t Share You; a track which could easily be considered to be the sister of Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want This Time.
“I won’t share you,” sings Morrissey, with a lilt that’s part high romance and part stalker call to arms, as Marr’s mandolin ebbs like a gondolier quietly going about his business. Once again it’s the juxtaposition of style and delivery which sees The Smiths find a thoroughly unique sonic space.
Yes, it’s all been done before, but never in these combinations, and that has always been the beauty in The Smiths - a beauty which all bands aspire to yet very few can grasp, never mind control.