Happy 30th Anniversary to The Smiths’ fourth & final album Strangeways, Here We Come, originally released September 28, 1987.
As we sit on the cusp of Morrissey’s latest album, Low in High School, we can look back upon the 30th anniversary of The Smiths’ fourth studio album Strangeways, Here We Come and think, “Huh. So that’s where it all went horribly, horribly wrong.”
1987’s Strangeways is where Morrissey, Marr and company move on from the clever interplay of poetry and melody, and just sing exactly what they’re feeling. Gone are the witty wordplaysarched over pop-jangle melodies. We’ve seen hints of these heavy-handed tendencies from the beginning (“Meat is Murder,” “I Know It’s Over”) but the ‘90s were edging up on us and subtlety and charm were as dead as a disco dancer. This was also the final studio album the band recorded before they broke up, a radical departure in sound and tone from the previous year’s The Queen Is Dead, a masterpiece that is, admittedly, hard to top.
Right off the top, “A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours” holds up surprisingly well. Morrissey alternates between velvet purrs and rough-boy growls over Marr’s tinny, spidery piano. While sparse in melody, it has more in common lyrically with “You’ve Got Everything Now” than with anything else on the album.
Along with “A Rush and a Push,” “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” is the sonic bridge between old Smiths and this new sound, which would last for this album only before they dissolved, and Morrissey went more or less out of his mind. It’s hard to imagine Morrissey getting into a physical fight, especially over a girl, but really, picture it, it’s pretty funny.
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the “…hard-faced, three-word gesture” Morrissey gives in “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” was the middle finger, a merry “go fuck yourself.” This is terribly cheeky and I love it because I am, in my heart, still a teenager with parents who don’t let me listen to music with swearing in it.
I hate to make it seem like I don’t like The Smiths. I love them the way one loves the outdated clothing in an old yearbook photo—you wouldn’t wear it now, but you can’t deny you rocked that plaid skirt and bucket hat. I love the recollection of how they made me feel, the era each album defined. For example, “If you think peace / is a common goal / that goes to show / how little you know” looked RAD when written in Wite-Out on my 5-Star fabric binder during my senior year of high school. But that binder is long gone, and so is my patience with “Death of a Disco Dancer,” especially since it’s about nine hours long.
“Girlfriend in a Coma” is only good for the fact that years later, Mike Nelson would impersonate Morrissey on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode “City Limits,” singing “Hairdresser in a Coma” and nailing his Morrissey impersonation. I imagine this made Morrissey very angry, which makes it that much more appealing.
The B-side is dismal and then it’s unlistenable. “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” is practically a Morrissey parody, and while “Unhappy Birthday” makes for a fun song to sing into someone’s voicemail on their Special Day, it’s the last not-terrible song Marr and Morrissey would ever write. “Paint a Vulgar Picture,” “Death at One’s Elbow,” and “I Won’t Share You” are miserable little tunes that haven’t gotten better or even worse with age—they’re so forgettable that one might be convinced they never actually existed.
I know people who claim Strangeways is their favorite album and they are very nice people with good taste in music. But one cannot deny that, despite any previous affections for the teenage bedroom or college dorm in which it was once listened to, it’s a harbinger of the worst to come. Yes, there would soon be “Sister, I’m a Poet” and “Suedehead” and “First of the Gang to Die.” But there would also be “November Spawned a Monster” and “Something is Squeezing My Skull” and now, ugh, “Spent the Day in Bed.”
Strangeways, Here We Come has made it to 30, no less the worse for wear, but no better. It is a time capsule perhaps best listened to while a little drunk and a little wistful for a time when these songs at once seemed edgy and cool. But unlike Hatful of Hollow or The Queen Is Dead, Strangeways’ appeal is driven only by the intimacy of the time in which it was first heard.