Strangeways Here We Come epitomizes the anarchic opulence of The SmithsRough Trade Records

For someone with such a disdain for the media, Morrissey rarely seems to be out of the spotlight. There is already hype growing around the upcoming album, Low in High School, by the former Smiths frontman. The first single, ‘Spent The Day In Bed’, is not terribly inspiring – it seems lost in a thicket of overdone synths – but towards the end, the air seems to clear, as he repeats the demand “time, do as I wish.” As we approach the thirtieth anniversary of the Smiths’ final album, Strangeways, Here We Come, it is tempting to wonder if he yearns for those heady days of the mid-1980s.

“The Rickenbacker still jangled; the Queen was still dead. Fans were expecting something like the ‘classic’ Smiths sound.”

Strangeways is nowadays rather overshadowed by its older brother The Queen Is Dead; when it is mentioned, it is inextricably linked to the band’s infamous split. It was to this background that the album was released, some three months after the breakup. The lead single off the album was ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’; although an excellent song, the musical style was broadly similar to their earlier work. The Rickenbacker still jangled; the Queen was still dead. Fans were expecting something like the ‘classic’ Smiths sound.

What they got was quite different. The album begins majestically, fading in as if from nowhere. The unmistakable tones of Morrissey surge into the soundscape; suddenly, a pounding piano riff bursts in. Notably, there is a total absence of guitars: Marr had become frustrated by his association with his signature style, and was trying to move away from it. ‘A Rush and a Push’ sets the tone for the rest of the album; it is a very conscious attempt to depart from their past. Their earlier style is certainly present – songs such as ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’ are perhaps more typical fare – but even here, there is a lot more grit. It combines lyrical bombast and an upbeat melody with the bitter story of a cheating drunkard, and is far removed from Morrissey’s earlier mawkish asceticism.

The second half takes a yet darker turn. From jangly melodrama, the album descends almost through the very gates of Hell. ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ opens with a stirringly sparse piano melody, overlaid upon the tortured yells of protesters from the Miners’ Strike. After these interminably tense opening minutes, the song lurches into the beautiful misery of the unloved man. It is, admittedly, a common theme of Morrissey’s lyrics, as he acknowledges – ‘The story is old, I know, but it goes on’ – but there is no need to apologise. The song is the most perfect depiction of the sorrows of loneliness in their rich catalogue. It rails resignedly against everything: against the human condition, against one’s fellow man, and ultimately against oneself.

Other tracks, such as ‘Paint a Vulgar Picture’, somewhat divide opinion. Some consider it an embittered rant against the music industry; others see it as a glorious enunciation of the tribulations of teenage fandom. In any case, the operatic vocals dovetail perfectly with Marr’s guitar throughout, from the understated introduction, through a rare solo and into the piercingly intense final verse.


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The album, and by extension the band itself, comes to a beautiful end. During recording, Marr had found a centuries-old lyre in the studios; within a matter of minutes he had produced a virtuosic melody. The lyrics of ‘I Won’t Share You’ course over the top of it with a subtle perfection. The song can be read as Morrissey’s tribute to Marr, who had recently started playing for other bands, but I prefer to think of it as a final, exquisite tribute to time itself. This, as he says, is his time.

That theme could be said to run through the entire record. Complementing the musical timescape of archaic zithers, glam-rock riffs and futuristic experimentation, the album’s words often reference the loss of youth, the inevitability of death, and the sanctity of the moment. This combination became an integral inspiration for the Britpop scene, and thence much of British music ever since.

The Smiths had that curiously British ability to break things off at precisely the right time. Had they stayed together for one more album, the rift between Morrissey and Marr would have become impossible to successfully bridge. Amidst all that acrimony, there is one thing they agree on: both are on record as having Strangeways as their favourite Smiths album. It stands as a musical beacon in the rough sea of time, taking in the views of all that lay behind it while illuminating much that lay ahead. And therein lies the genius: it is not simply a product of its time; it is a product of time itself

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