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Still a staple of Morrissey’s live shows, “Bigmouth Strikes Again” famously has the singer inhabiting the skin of Joan of Arc, claiming—as grandiosely as ever—he knows how she felt “as the flames rose to her Roman nose”. As the band burns away behind him, Moz also drops one of his most infamously melodramatic verses: “Oh Sweetness / Sweetness, I was only joking / When I said I’d like to / Smash every tooth in your head / Oh Sweetness / Sweetness, I was only joking / When I said by rights / You should be bludgeoned in your bed.” Angry? Yes. Insensitive? Definitely. Ringing true to life? That, too.
“Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” might, for better or worse, sum up the Smiths to fans and detractors alike. Gentle instrumentation, a melody as sticky as rubber cement, and Morrissey’s woe-is-me lyrics—they’re all here. Of course, the song is also laugh-out-loud funny (“In my life / Why do I smile / At people who I’d much rather / Kick in the eye?”) and as effortlessly beautiful as anything pressed onto wax in the 1980s. The song’s strength lies in Morrissey’s singular ability to blend tongue-in-cheek with heart-on-sleeve. We feel his pain, but we can laugh with him, too: “What she asked of me at the end of the day / Caligula would have blushed!” Play this track for anyone who keeps pigeonholing the Smiths as sad-sack solipsists.
Johnny Marr is the star of the show,here. His guitar lick at the beginning of “This Charming Man” was enough to inspire a million of like-minded kids to pick up the instrument themselves. Morrissey’s no slouch, either, giving one of his best vocal performances with one of his finest sing-song melodies. And that yelp—classic. Who said Smiths fans couldn’t have dance parties, too?
Possibly the Smiths’ most famous song among casual listeners, “How Soon Is Now?” got its start as a b-side. That just goes to show you the strength of the band’s material. Morrissey didn’t even need the a-side to make room for his most famous proclamation: “I am human, and I need to be loved / Just like everybody else does.” In writing this song, he and his band guaranteed they’d have the love of generations to come.
“Ask” is one of the most uplifting, encouraging songs you’re likely to hear—even more notable, then, that it was written by a band pegged by many as depressive to a pitch. Morrissey momentarily steps out of his shell, knowing that “Shyness is nice”, but “Shyness can stop you / From doing all the things in life you’d like to.” The instrumentation glides effortlessly toward the stratosphere. If you’re in need of a pick-me-up, drop the needle on this one.
“How can they see the love in our eyes / And still they don’t believe us?” Thus Morrissey put into words the yearnings of every 16-year-old in the human race. That’s not to disparage him—if nothing else, the Smiths’ gift to their listeners lies in their validation of the adolescent experience, of saying, “Hey—you feel this way, other people feel this way, and that’s worth getting excited about.” With that sentiment, “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” has been an anthem for boys and girls alike for a quarter century now.
The Smiths arguably have more great non-album singles than any other group in the last three decades. Nevertheless, their finest track may be a deep album cut. “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”, the penultimate song on The Queen Is Dead, shines (sorry) atop their staggering discography. If the Smiths express longing more articulately than any of their peers, “There Is a Light” hits that mark more strikingly than any of the band’s other songs. “And in the darkened underpass,” Morrissey sings, “I thought, ‘Oh God, my chance has come at last / But then a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn’t ask.” The band’s stately orchestration aches just as powerfully. The combination makes for one of the finest, most affecting songs in rock history.