Its hit or miss with a new anthology that aims to capture the dark, fey and funny spirit of The Smiths
500 Days of Summer, starring Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levett, is a song by the Smiths transmuted into film. Or at least it seems like it. This feeling comes not just from a soundtrack heavy with The Smiths or even from that luminous moment, destined to become a rom-com classic, when Deschanel gives her “I love The Smiths, I just love them” speech and then breathily tweets a line or two from “There is a Light that Never Goes Out". These homages aside, it was a movie with the same playful melancholy that seemed at the heart of the band’s complex blend of sweetness and cynicism.
Please, a new fiction anthology edited by Peter Wild, attempts to capture the same spirit. Wild, who edited a similar collection based on the music of Sonic Youth, makes clear in the introduction that this is writing, not about The Smiths and certainly not “fanfic”. Instead, it highlights “fiction for which music is the starting point”. This gave the contributors a free hand, allowing them to deal with The Smiths and their work either with riffs or flat-out refusals.
This is mostly successful. If a band ever deserved a fiction anthology based on their music, it’s The Smiths. Moz and crew’s literary sensibility, and the allusions in their work ranging from Oscar Wilde to Elizabeth Smart, would seem to make them perfect for this treatment. Unfortunately, the collection contains pieces that call the mind the quip that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. There is some inevitable letdown with each story. The contributors never quite manage to hit the transcendent note of the music they draw inspiration from. Some don’t even come close. This is to be expected. Still, many of the best pieces capture a bit of The Smith’s spirit in way that will send you back to listen all over again.
Several of these pieces succeed so well that it feels like Moz himself wrote them, or at least helped plot them out. Kate Pullinger’s appreciation for “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” perfectly renders Smithian themes of yearning, awkward efforts to make human connections and how such efforts can go laughably wrong (and end up with naked dancing on YouTube). Although none of these stories quit manages the tone of the Smith’s angry “Meat is Murder” stage, Matt Beaumont’s “I want the One I Can’t Have” successfully and funnily, skewers the whole enterprise of writing fiction about a band’s catalogue, his narrator a writer who has been asked to contribute to a collection called Ordinary World: Stories Inspired by the Songs of Duran Duran. The result calls into question most of what goes about under the label of pop music.
Unevenness seeps into this collection when authors use that primarily use a song title as a jumping off point from which they leap and never look back. Jenn Ashworth, whose introduction to her contribution seems to suggest that she doesn’t like The Smiths and, in fact, doesn’t even like music all that much, is the worst example of this tendency. Although a well-crafted tale, it not only fails to capture the spirit of the tune; it seems to purposefully ignore it. Not only is there no exchanging of pillows, the story concludes with a fairly shocking act of violence that seems totally out of step with the rest of the narrative. Or a shocking conclusion that feels remarkably inconclusive.
Other pieces, while very strong on their own, seem to owe very little of their inspiration to The Smith’s catalogue. “Cemetery Gates”, one of my favorite pieces in the collection feels like it draws more from Pedro Almodovar than from Morrissey. Charlie William’s “Sweet and Tender Hooligan” captures a This is England tone that has sources other than The Smiths.. I kept thinking how it felt like a story about the guys who beat up Smith’s fans rather than about the spirit of the band itself.
The best piece in Please subverts the collection’s parameters, at least a bit. John Williams’ reflection on “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” functions as a thinly-veiled memoir of the biggest, and strangest, Smith's fan the author ever knew as well as an evocation of a world “of confused and lonely eighteen year olds in our charity shop and army surplus clothes, haunting the second-hand record shops of declining industrial towns.” William’s description of the pathos of Smith fandom, and most importantly the grimy world that brought it to birth, made me wish that this collection had included more pieces like this, good writers remembering and reflecting rather than riffing on The Smith themes.
Fans of The Smith’s will have to own this collection and those who loved the fiercely smart, literary side to the band will be enthralled by most of it. A few will be disappointed that some of the pieces leave their inspiration behind pretty quickly. Anyone who has a special place in their heart for that strange band will appreciate Wild’s description of The Smiths as “the most important and emotionally urgent band of my adolescence.” Taken together, this collection reads like a love letter both to the bleak old Blighty of the '80s, and the band that gave it such a fey voice.