The Smiths’ star shone brightly and burned out quickly, but they were prolific as Hell for the brief time they were together. Strangeways is their fourth and final album, released in 1987. That’s four albums in five years, a live album the year after they broke up, and a slew of singles and b-sides, besides.
Let me tell you a little secret – there’s not a bad one in the bunch. No bad albums, no lousy singles, and even the b-sides are good. (Especially, “How Soon Is Now?”, which isn’t featured on any of the original LPs.) But Strangeways is especially good.
The album begins with a fade-in to the first track, “A Rush And A Push And the Land Is Ours.” It continues with a herky-kerky rhythm, punctuated with simple keyboards. Morrissey has a good wallow while the rest of the band keeps everything interesting.
“I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” begins with some bare-knuckle guitar and meaty bass. Johnny Marr is in top form on this one, and if you listen closely you’ll catch the obligatory 80s sax in the background.
The intro to “Death of a Disco Dancer” is slightly chilling, and rightly so I suppose. Marr gets an interesting effect out of the guitar here, effecting an icy, stabby sound. The whole affair has a dreamy, distant sound until picking up speed and intensity to a noisy finish. Nice fat drum sound towards the end of the track, courtesy of Mike Joyce.
The Smiths at their best, and they were never bad
“Girlfriend in a Coma” is so catchy, it inspired Douglas Coupland to give a novel the same title, and has inspired covers by Mojo Nixon, Bleach, Panic! at the Disco, and a bunch of other bands. The Smiths aren’t typically associated with strings, but there’s a heavy (synthesized, I believe) string component at the end. Which is a good lead-in to the lush “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before.”
There’s a lot I love about “Stop Me,” but the lyrics are probably the foremost reason I adore the song. “The pain was enough to make a shy bald Buddhist reflect and plan a mass murder” tossed off by Morrissey as casual as you please. Frigging genius, that is. Followed up by a fantastic guitar melody that will live in your head for days, and the closing solo from Marr is incredibly tasty.
“Paint a Vulgar Picture” is a bit prescient. No, there’s no “dead star” from The Smiths, but “Best of! Most of! Satiate the need, slip them into different sleeves” certainly describes the post-breakup Smiths output. (And, yes, once again, Marr turns in a crisp and clear solo that’s just perfect. (The Smiths revisit the lyric “you just haven’t earned it yet, baby” with a song of the same name.)
“I Won’t Share You,” is a sweet close to the album. Almost a lullaby, it reminds me a bit of “Unloveable” (b-side to “Bigmouth Strikes Again.”) and “Asleep.” Strangeways was one of my go-to albums to put on before bed when I was in high school and college, and if I hadn’t crashed by the time this track came on, it was a good way to drift off.
Nearly 30 years old, I still don’t get tired of this album in the slightest. It’s the best of The Smiths’ catalog, and one of the best of the 80s.