Thursday, November 12, 2015
The Smiths - The Queen Is Dead
The Queen Is Dead (1986) ***1/2
Call me old-fashioned (and if you listen to the Smiths, you definitely have at least a few neo-Edwardian Luddite tendencies, will it or nay) but I still like to think of albums in terms of sides. This makes it simpler to categorize the tracks on this release, as on my 1990s era cassette the four truly great tracks are bookended at the start/end of Sides One and Two, respectively. In between are sandwiched pleasing trifles of throwaways and unpleasing plodders of ponderousity. OK, track 2 side 2, "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side" amounts to more than a throwaway - it's excellent, but ineffably falls just a bit a short of classic. Perhaps it's Stephen Street's soupy psuedo-string backdrop behind the perfectly adequate-by-itself guitar jangle. A sparer arrangement would've made more sense than the superfluous overproduction, but - this was the '80s. There's a reason why I've always preferred the live-in-the-studio with minimal overdubs sound of their BBC sessions to any of their proper studio recordings.
Actually, now that I re-listen, it's most side one that actively annoys me. The second half of the disc turns out to be fairly consistent on closer inspection -- "Vicar in a Tutu" is a goofball throwaway, but it least it skips fruitily along its merry way in barely over two minutes, so it doesn't drag (pun intended groan). "There is a Light That Never Goes Out" - again - suffers from the psuedo-orchestrations of Street overproduction (gosh darn it, if I wanted to hear Morrissey warbling over lush strings, I'd buy one of his solo albums. I listen to Smiths albums to hear the band, man.), but hey, it's not a bad tune melodically speaking and has a few choice lyrical moments.
At this moment a prose psychoanalyst would note that I overuse the conjunction "but" and have the tendency to hedge my bets with ambiguous modifiers. One can see that Burks often falls into the habit of pointing out flaws for every good point, and vice versa, rarely fully expressing complete approval or disdain. This indicates either a waffling, indecisive personality type, or perhaps simply a dedicatedly observant type who can analyze objects from different points of view, namely either the half-full or half-empty perspective. This is a good quality in a reviewer, particularly when the object of art under scrutiny is neither a triumph nor a failure, but somewhere in the middle realm of flawed goodness, as are most albums. (Actually, that isn't true at all - 95% of everything is unadulterated crap.) Does the mind rule the body or the body rule the mind? I dunno.
Back to the old house, dear old blighty. The title track rushes along mid-tempo in an intimate epic (oh you clever contradictory adjectives), the mood a modern-day update on "That's Entertainment" (only six years after the Jam, an eternity in UK Pop), bemoaning the dreary state of rainy-grey Blighty while not-so-secretly getting a perverse kick out of miserable English weather and miserable English people. 'Tis the great British tradition to whine about the Motherland. The bookend that closes side one, "Cemetery Gates" does that trad clever-pop trick to even better effect, marrying a sunny shimmer of Marr-guitars with melancholy Morrissey-isms concerning Wilde, Keats, Yeats, and graveyard gates. Do I dare eat a peach? Do I dare disturb the universe? Do I dare listen to the rest of side one again? Yes, "Frankly Mr. Shankly" bounces along quite jauntily with some of the Kinks-iest moves these boys have ever homaged at us (I said Kinksy, not kinky, silly toff), both musically and character-assassination-of -the-bourgeois wise, but - it amounts to a non-earth-shattering throwaway. And then there are the LP's twin nadirs, back to back smack in the middle of side one, two gruesomely slow and morbid Morrissey-ballads that perilously threaten to drag the entire record down with them. I know that fanboys eat virginity blues "Never Had No One Never" and funeral porn "I Know It's Over" up like lithium tablets because they, like, speak to my sensitive goth wallflower existence sob. Me? I want to skip to the good stuff, not wallow in adolescent angst. I get enough of that in my daily life as a grown man pushing middle age, thank you.
Well, let's flip this vinyl over and get to some of those goodies, chiefly the album's fiercest rocker, the tightly crackling "Bigmouth Strikes Again" - hey, now here's an anthem that truly speaks to me, sob. And skipping along to the lone song I have not yet mentioned, the album closes on a high point, "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others" which dreamily floats along as if it's constantly on the verge of fading in and out. And then it does fade out, leaving Antony and Cleopatra and perhaps the Smiths' finest long-player behind. There is this is misguided notion that:
a) great bands must leave behind great albums
b) the Smiths were a great band
c) therefore, The Queen Is Dead is a great album
Spot the flaw in the logic.