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Dusting ‘Em Off: The Smiths – Strangeways, Here We Come

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The Smiths’ swan song, Strangeways, Here We Come, may not receive as much acclaim as its predecessors, but it should. Like most of the band’s back catalog, Strangeways has found a resurgence in popularity in recent years, but is still the most overlooked Smiths album. While not the best of the bunch, it contains enough gems that are worth revisiting over 21 years later.

As lead singer Morrissey, bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce went in to record Strangeways in March of 1987, they couldn’t have guessed that the creative force behind the music, guitarist Johnny Marr, would be gone a few months later. Afraid of being pigeonholed in a certain genre (as well as that age-old maxim of “creative differences”), Marr would depart before the album’s release in September. The band auditioned replacements for a brief period before wisely recognizing the importance of Marr to the sound of the band.

The group would disband shortly thereafter, but that’s another story. For now, let’s turn to the songs of Strangeways, Here We Come. The Smiths’ albums have always had strong openers, and the band’s final album would be no exception. With the opening piano coming from what sounds like an old west saloon, Morrissey declares he is the “ghost of Troubled Joe/hung by his pretty white neck/some eighteen months ago” in the song “A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours”. Vintage, Grade-A, insulting lyrics follow over a bouncing beat as Morrissey reminds us that there are “people who are uglier than you and I/they take what they need, and just leave”.

The second single off the album is also the second track. “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” dances along with the chorus “I started something/forced you to a zone/and you were clearly/never meant to go”. Sexual? Violent? Both? Like many songs by The Smiths, it’s up to the listeners to decide for themselves. “Death of a Disco Dancer” is one of the few mistakes this album makes, and unfortunately it is almost the longest of the ten tracks featured on Strangeways. Morrissey actually gets credit for playing a musical instrument on this particular song, but it’s simply him running his fingers up and down the piano. Congrats, Moz!

Despite this misstep, the band is back in top form for “Girlfriend in a Coma”, a song about a girlfriend in…a coma. Over the most happy-go-lucky music of the band’s career, Morrissey sings “Girlfriend in a coma, I know, I know/It’s serious”. He confesses, “There were times when I could have murdered her/But, you know, I would hate anything to happen to her”. All of this is sung in typical melodramatic fashion that only Stephen Patrick Morrissey could get away with. If you didn’t know, “Girlfriend in a Coma” was the first single off of Strangeways.

Another single from the album is “Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before”. There was a cover of said song by Mark Ronson and Daniel Merriweather released a couple years ago. Let me describe the original version for you. Just imagine that the Ronson-rendition sounded of quality, and the singer was convincing. Now you have the original version of “Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before”. You’re welcome.

The next track is the emotionally-charged “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”. Gone is the hilarity of “Girlfriend in a Coma”, this is a song of loneliness that is only matched by “I Know Its Over” from The Smith’s The Queen is Dead. Here are the lyrics in their entirety:

Last night I dreamt that somebody loved me
No hope, no harm, just another false alarm
Last night I felt real arms around me
No hope, no harm, just another false alarm
So, tell me how long before the last one?
And tell me how long before the right one?
This story is old, I know, but it goes on
This story is old, I know, but it goes on…

There is no ingenious wordplay going on here, but the delivery is second-to-none. The first two minutes of the song are devoted to the simple (not simplistic) playing of the piano, until the full band comes crashing in. The music adds to the tension that is building throughout. By the time the song reaches its climax, Morrissey has exhausted himself, and the world comes to an end. It should have been placed at the very end of the album’s track list, but that’s the only issue to be found with this song.

The album follows with “Unhappy Birthday”, a good if inconsequential track that is self-explanatory (“I’ve come to wish you an unhappy birthday/because you’re evil/and you lie”). Then we reach the pulsating march of “Paint a Vulgar Picture”, a condemnation on record executives. The song also attacks endless compilations with no new material, something that we can all agree The Smiths have fallen victim to in the last 20 years (“Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!/Re-evaluate the songs/Double-pack with a photograph/Extra track and a tacky badge”). It also brings to mind Capitol Records’ recent

“Death at One’s Elbow” is the penultimate track, and okay at best. Another dark song about murder; the music plays as a sister song to “Rusholme Ruffians” from the band’s second album, Meat is Murder. The grand finale of the album, the final song on a proper Smiths album (their final recording would be on a b-side later on), is “I Won’t Share You”. Marr on acoustic guitar, Morrissey on vocals. Listening to the lyrics now, it’s as if Morrissey is singing to his soon-to-be ex-bandmate: “I won’t share you/I’ll see you somewhere/I’ll see you sometime…”

Strangeways, Here We Come is a very good record. Along with much of The Smiths’ music, it has stood up very well decades later. Morrissey has since enjoyed a successful solo career, with

While Morrissey and Marr may never get along enough to reunite, they do agree on one thing: this is their favorite album of the four they made. You can agree or disagree, but they certainly have a case. We’ll see if Strangeways, Here We Come holds up in the year 2030 in our revealing “Dusting Off Dusting ‘Em Off” article.

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