The Smiths commenced recording their fourth (and ultimately final) full-length knowing the title of the album and little else. Still, the band possessed such a strong sense of self — with a variegated cosmology that made room for cult film stars and Wilde worship, the Brill Building and monarchic brickbats — that Strangeways, Here We Come would accrue all kinds of meaning. Johnny Marr thought the title, a reference to the familiar name of HM Prison Manchester, was a bit too on Moz’s schnozz, if you will, but at this point he knew the score. Soon enough, the band’s storied partnership split into its own strange ways; three years later, the prison exploded.
Twenty-five years on, the legacy of Strangeways is still not fixed. Is it a consciously gloomy swan song? A document of a disintegrating band? The creative culmination of six remarkably productive years? It hasn’t been settled. A few years after its release, Marr told journalist Johnny Rogan that he detected a “poignancy” and an “air of foreboding” about the record. But one of the cardinal principles of music criticism (and fandom) is not to necessarily take the artist’s cue.
The Beatles’ self-titled LP and Let It Be were touchstones during the recording of Strangeways, and one can certainly read the tea leaves of dissolution in the choice of the former. The sessions themselves — with what Marr characterized to Rogan as “very few overdubs” — hewed to the model of the latter, however. It was the band’s first record since their debut to credit an outside producer: their long-time engineer Stephen Street. The crawly, bass-led “Death Of A Disco Dancer” even featured Morrissey’s only instrumental credit in the entire Smiths catalog: the piano spangle — like a cartoon skeleton playing its own ribcage — during the steady-droning second half, the jammingest stretch the band ever put together.
Morrissey’s idle ivory-tinkling aside, Strangeways is not a terribly experimental record. There are no artificial female backing vocalists (as in “Bigmouth Strikes Again”) or excursions into Factory funk (cf. “Barbarism Begins At Home”). Determined to shake his reputation as a jangler, Marr kicked things off on opener “A Rush And Push And The Land Is Ours” with barrelhouse piano swiped from Reparata’s “Shoes,” a minor pop hit and an old favorite of his. (His reputation remained unsullied.) The usual canny mix of sardonicism and melodrama is present — as ever with Morrissey, often within the same verse. His vocals come in clearly and the album comes in under 37 minutes, their quickest set by a hair.
Yet for its relative brevity — “Death At One’s Elbow” and lead single “Girlfriend In A Coma” are the shortest album tracks in their discography — Strangeways doesn’t yield the pop pleasures of earlier efforts. The poison-pen “Unhappy Birthday” would seem to beg for a jaunty acidity, but instead offers a downcast Morrissey seething over Rourke’s near-fretless tone and Marr’s plangent fingerwork and lonesome howls. While The Queen Is Dead closed with the riotously po-faced “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others,” Strangeways’ finale, “I Won’t Share You,” is a moody ballad of ambition. “The zeal I feel / This is my time,” Morrissey asserts, foreshadowing his solo career with the declaration “I want the freedom and the guile.” Marr strums revently on the autoharp, adding a harp-like countermelody in the middle.
Still, there is immediacy here. “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before” — fortuitously, the group’s last single — is one of their towering achievements, a resounding monologue of evaded responsibility rendered with muscle. Marr’s grandiose lines and ascending riffs neatly assist Morrissey in the indignant defense of his honor (“Who said I lied, because I never / I never / Who said I lied because I never …”). “Stop Me” was banned from daytime airplay by the BBC, due to a stray line about mass murder (deemed insensitive in light of the recent Hungerford Massacre). The band decided not to promote it at home; elsewhere, it scraped to a peak of 91 on the Australian charts.
That the bit about mass murder was the punchline to the description of “a shy, bald Buddhist” was irrelevant to the BBC. Even taking general radio squeamishness into consideration, Morrissey’s lyrics (and the band’s compositions) were always more likely to be read through the lens of Eliot than Wilde. David Browne’s Rolling Stone review of Strangeways cited the “angst chronicles” of “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” while disregarding, say, Morrissey’s quasi-Lamaze grunting or the ersatz synth-ska on “A Rush And A Push,” which references “mystical time zones” and criticism of the singer’s caffeine levels. Or take “Girlfriend In A Coma,” which pairs Marr’s gentle, acoustic, reggae-dusted barre chords and Rourke’s bullfrogging bass with Morrissey’s through-slit-fingers narrative of a partner who may or may not be on the mend. Perhaps Morrissey’s vocal investment, no matter the track, is to blame for the perception of maudlinness. It makes the jokes funnier once they’re gotten, though.
But even the best comedian — and Moz is surely not, though he stacks up well in his weight class — must bomb, and so we have “Paint A Vulgar Picture.” The Smiths’ savaging of a venal music industry offers up hoary boardroom boogiemen and unfortunate, inevitable prophesies (“Re-issue! Re-package!”). Toss in the Beatlesque in-joke of referring to a previous song and a swipe at the “ugly new homes” of the unwashed concertgoing masses, and the self-righteousness puffs to undeflatable levels.
Marr has gone on record fancying himself as Phil Spector with a guitar, and one wonders if building sonic cathedrals for Morrissey to stroll in alone induced any strain. After the breakup, he joined Matt Johnson’s The The — Johnson had extended him an invitation predating the Smiths — spawning one of the decade’s best records in 1993’s Dusk, even picking up a backing vocal credit along the way. Freed from the burden of a restless sonic architect, Morrissey narrowed his focus on a series of good-to-great records grappling with violence, rockabilly and cover-art rush jobs. Joyce and Rourke sued for their rightful share of royalties; Rourke settled out of court. Joyce did not, and the quarter share he was awarded validated the contributions of the rhythm section, as did their employment by Morrissey on several tracks early in his solo career.
Insofar as anything really can, nothing in the 25 years since Strangeways’ release has sullied its legacy, or that of the Smiths. Again, though, what is that legacy? In a broad sense, Marr’s guitar architecture formed a bridge from ’70s glam and post-punk to the era of Cool Britannia. Groups like Oasis and James nodded to the six-string ring, while new glammers like Suede discarded Morrissey’s sexual dissections for straight decadence. (Unfortunately for Morrissey, the ambiguity with which he viewed sex did not translate well to nationalism, and while Noel Gallagher and Geri Halliwell got to drape themselves with the Union Jack, Moz has spent much of his solo career defending himself against charges of racism.) In its heyday, Britpop elided the past in favor of a giant neon Now; though the Smiths continued to be revered, the pop landscape had little room for their inward and backward gazes.
As well as anyone, Marr and Morrissey knew that meaning is where you find it. Their cultural obsessions, both shared and separate, were oddball, deeply held, and wickedly seeded throughout their partnership. That, to me, is a weightier gift than arch melancholy, and unpacking their passions is a more interesting pursuit than ranking them. The Smiths died as they were born: insular and insolent, content to rearrange an immaculately furnished estate. Any musician who does as they did, splicing their forebears’ DNA rather than reproducing it, will have done Strangeways, and the band, a tremendous service.