There aren’t many bands within modern English language pop music that can elicit heartfelt sighs, and much less in today’s mainstream. Often it doesn’t seem possible that something or someone could come along and be cared about as much as the Smiths’ rabid fans still care about them. And it is harder still to believe something could inspire a truer obsession, as there still doesn’t seem to be another manner in which to discover this band. But then the Smiths were not really a pop band to begin with, not really of or within the mainstream either.
And Hatful of Hollow is precisely this, 16 shots of adolescent displeasure, humour, frustration, wishful thinking, and frankly, fixation; sounding in turns like slaps, punches and long, drawn out sighs. It is a band summing up beautifully what it means to be growing up awkwardly and feeling strange; wanting love and yet still not fully believing in it.
Helping the navel grazing set originate, the Smiths will of course always be derided as miserabilists. But it’s the humour and beauty involved that those criticisms always seem to miss or worse yet ignore. How, for instance, can they overlook Marr’s great blues affected guitar asides while Morrissey sings, “In my life, oh why do I spend valuable time, with people who I’d much rather kick in the eye?” Maybe it’s me, but I can’t think of a line in pop music that has summed up any of my own personal social frustrations with as much blunt accuracy and humour. And similarly this album opens and closes with the same shattered and lonely individualism, a wish for self-centeredness that is both juvenile and laughable at its core, and fittingly Morrissey teases with it in the opening track, singing “I never dream about anyone, except myself.”
Of course that this collection closes with the haunting goose bump directness of “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” only confirms this youthful worry for isolation, as over a collection of subtle overlapping guitars (one that can only be called genius in its beauty and timelessness) Morrissey prays, “Please Please Please let me get what I want, Lord knows it would be the first time.” Who he is praying to is never clear of course, but the fact it might be you is enough to cement any sort of loyalty.
But this is why the Manchester quartet will always be important, as through the combination of Morrissey’s wondrous lyrics and Johnny Marr’s aching guitar melanges, they could instantly make you feel nostalgic, aching as it were for something, (exactly what was hard to tell, though), or at least the want to. Maybe it is because much of the band was barely out of their teens when they began, but by tapping into the spirit of early rock, rockabilly, and Oscar Wilde, they introverted and still somehow said what every kid felt, feels, and wants to feel.
It is maybe a mystery how, and one only aided by a dated drum sound, but they and Hatful of Hollow feels timeless, a sound that is both classically old and yet still totally fresh and vital; one that continues to draw new listeners today.
This though the release is not a real album but a collection of at the time unreleased singles, their mostly fantastic b-sides and much of their first album redone for the John Peel sessions. And that it could hold up and some say surpasses their studio work is remarkable, though it illustrates how strong a band they were, and how they were improving.
And because of the Peel sessions, the songs from their debut album glow in a ragged live setting, sounding tougher, fuller, and more impassioned than their previous released forms. Of note particularly is “Reel Around the Fountain”, which sounds so loose and free its intense yet expected ending comes as a brilliant surprise.
“Hand in Glove” and “Still Ill” also come across better, sounding in turns less muddy, echo limited, and more critical. And these if anything showcase Moz at his early best, glimpsing and shadowing everything from youthful love, disappointment, sex, and boredom, to hope for the future; this though thoughtfully winking and including the line “the sun shines out of our behinds.”
Also standing out is the reworking of “This Charming Man”, which aided by an additional acoustic rhythm guitar and a slightly slower pace, improves if possible on a classic song.
But aside from these revisited tunes, what makes this collection great is the sheer incredible breadth of it, as not once among the entire set does the quality, focus, or energy dip—this though many mellower songs abound. Of course, most of them are highlights, especially the aforementioned hilarity of self-deprecation in “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”, the memory laden heartbreak of “Back to the Old House”, and the empathetic story of a young couple giving up their child in “This Night Has Opened My Eyes”. Of course that these are seemingly set haphazardly among more raucous fare like “Girl Afraid”, “Handsome Devil”, and “Accept Yourself”, only somehow works to drive home the originality of each tune.
And this, if anything is the Smiths; a band always at their best when playing to their contrasts; Morrissey’s Gladiolas to Marr’s leather jacket, sexual references among declarations of celibacy, poppy and light sounds while lifting eruditely from literature, deadly serious yet mocking themselves and the world around.
This I would imagine because Marr and Morrissey realized they, like everything else, seemed prime targets for ridicule, love, and loathing. And maybe after parting ways with five albums in five years, they assumed the joke wouldn’t be funny anymore. Instead, they left behind a pimply rough document of youth and a legion of fans still young at heart, praying they would only reunite.
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