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21st February 2019

Record Reappraisal: The Smiths – The Smiths

Jake Oliver re-examines The Smiths’ eponymous debut 35 years after its original release and shares why it is just as relevant today
Record Reappraisal: The Smiths – The Smiths
Photo: The Smiths – Flickr (Brett Jordan)

The 1980s; an era so unequivocally defined by its brash music and ridiculous glamour. And yet, seemingly from within this realm of neon and synth-pop, came perhaps one of the most ironically morose bands of the 20th century – The Smiths. Their eponymous debut, now 35 years old, was a total subversion of these cultural normalities and its relevancy in 2019 is a testament to the timelessness of cynicism.

During their brief lifespan (a mere four years), Morrissey, Marr, Rourke and Joyce established a distinctive sound that is as iconic as their lyrics. The jangly, ridiculously infectious guitar riffs, the steady tempo of the percussion and bass and indeed, the warbling tones of Morrissey all combine to give that idiosyncratic Smiths soundscape. Their debut, as much as it was a departure from the usual noise of the 1980s, was a diverse collection of instrumentation. From the post-punk whirlwind of ‘Miserable Lie’ to the danceable ‘This Charming Man’, The Smiths was as good a launchpad as any for a band still very much in their infancy. It was a diversity that was maintained and explored continuously over the course of the band’s career.

But why do fans still find The Smiths as enticing as it was in 1984? The idea of a nostalgia pendulum, argues that pop culture tends to reproduce elements from the past on a 30-year-cycle, is an apt explanation. However, I’d like to believe that The Smiths themselves transcend a basic craving for nostalgia and instead, created music that is essentially timeless and consistently relevant – even in the 21st century.

Lyrically, The Smiths handles many of the issues still at large today – sexuality, fame, violence and acceptance. At times, the lyrics are funny, tinged with that razor-sharp wit Morrissey is renowned for. But beneath this is sincerity and vulnerability. ‘Still Ill’ stands as perhaps the most poignant track on the album, with Morrissey not just reflecting on growing up, but also alluding to his sexuality and the negative social stigma attached to homosexuality that was still painfully prevalent during the 80s. “Am I still ill?” – the power lies within its simplicity.

Juxtaposition between melancholy and wit are not just achieved in the lyrical content, but through Marr and Rourke’s constant intertwining of sound. They contrast each other beautifully; the sparkling, delicate riffs and thick, plodding basslines seemingly reflect the same contradictions as Morrissey himself – as wry as they are weary. This is captured excellently on closing track ‘Suffer Little Children’, a song about the Moors murders. Whilst the subject matter is unpleasant, the instrumentals are as well executed as ever.

Why is The Smiths still a brilliant album? Because it’s a brutal portrayal of honesty and that being sincere is scary. In a time steeped in sarcasm and apathy, Morrissey’s catty lyricisms have never felt so relevant. “And did I ever tell you by the way? I never did like your face” he drones nonchalantly on ‘You’ve Got Everything Now’. It’s the sort of bitterness that isn’t lost on modern audiences. Would we have the variety of emotionally vulnerable acts today if The Smiths hadn’t debuted with such a powerful, genre-changing album? Who knows. But their cultural impact is undeniable – even if Morrissey has gone somewhat awry in recent times.

There’s a universal appeal to this album. In short, it’s a classic.

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