It’s hard being a fan of the Smiths.
On one hand, you are treated to a band that completely shifted the UK rock paradigm in the ’80s, highlighting the “alternative” part of “alternative rock” by providing an escape from the soulless, hollow synth-pop sounds that dominated the charts at the time. They gave a whole generation of listeners and outsiders a sense of commonality, with a sound that was soaked in honest-to-goodness guitar pop, but married to a deft lyricism that was as intensely romantic as it was literate and self-obsessed. Although it didn’t take long for the Smiths to rise to prominence, their brief stint in pop music (which, when you get right down to it, stretched a mere five years) helped define what rock music could do in the decades that followed, spawning countless imitators while inspiring just as many innovators. The band’s canon has been hyperbolized to death and back again, but even now, such praise rarely feels overly gratuitous.
On the other hand, fans of the Smiths tend to get screwed over on a near-daily basis. Although the band’s canon is quite expansive, their key songs are frequently (some would say mercilessly) repackaged time after time, with an endless parade of hits and rarities compilations being churned out like clockwork, leading devotees to buy the same tracks over and over again (and this goes double for fans of Morrissey’s solo career). Case in point? The 2008 release The Sound of the Smiths was the group’s fourth post-mortem hits collection.
As such, it’s not too surprising that fans would be wary of something as definitively-titled as Complete, and who could blame them? By taking the group’s four studio albums, three catch-all compilations, and their only live effort (1988’s Rank, recorded The Queen Is Dead-era) and bundling them all together, there isn’t much appeal here to those who already own the group’s complete discography — save for the much-advertised remastering job by Johnny Marr. Ultimately, is it worth purchasing this set? And perhaps more importantly, is this set truly “complete”?
Let’s start with the second question first: no, this is not the end-all and be-all for Smiths fans, although it does come pretty darn close. The group’s two noted odds-and-sods collections (1984’s Hatful of Hollow and 1987’s Louder Than Bombs) do a great job of rounding up the band’s stray non-album singles and assorted B-sides and put them into one place. That leaves distant cousin The World Won’t Listen as the straggler of the bunch, overlapping far too gratuitously with the other two compilations, leaving only “Money Changes Everything”, “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”, “Stretch Out & Wait [alternate vocal]”, and “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby [UK Mix]” as the only genuine takeaways to be found. In short, it’s the exact same gripe that Smiths fans have been having to deal with for some time: not every single B-side and off-shoot that we have a record of has found its way onto an “official” release. This is nothing new.
Yet even with that in mind, Complete actually pulls off an interesting move by trying to restore the band’s discography to the way it once was. That’s something achieved by going the bold route and taking the band’s sophomore album (and the group’s only original UK chart-topper) Meat Is Murder and restoring it to its original track-listing, before iconic single “How Soon is Now?” was tacked on to later editions following its solo success. It’s an unusual (and welcome) move by the band: decreasing the amount of layover between releases instead of increasing it. Even better? It’s a move that makes quite a bit of logistical sense: “How Soon Is Now?” is an anomaly in the group’s canon, as it sounds like little else that came before or after it. By removing it from the Meat Is Murder track listing, the album actually achieves a greater sense of cohesion. This isunderlined by the fact that this is the release where bassist Andy Rourke’s talents really came into play, something which is even more apparent without the interruption of “How Soon”, which, for all intensive purposes, is the Johnny Marr Show. It’s one of Complete‘s more welcome surprises, and somewhat overshadows that ever-gnawing complaint about the lack of the group’s rarities/B-sides* appearing on any sort of official release.
(*For those keeping score at home, the noted missing tracks are as follows: the live recording of “Handsome Devil”, the group’s three Sandie Shaw collaborations (“Hand in Glove”, “I Don’t Owe You Anything”, & “Jeane”), “Wonderful Woman”, the live tracks from the “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” single, the studio version of “The Draize Train”, “Work is a Four-Letter Word”, “I Keep Mine Hidden”, the live cover of James’ “What’s the World”, the 1987 Peel sessions from the “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” single, any/all of the scrapped Troy Tate recordings, and the early cello version of “Pretty Girls Make Graves”. What’s even more confusing/confounding is how some of these tracks actually made their appearance on the Deluxe version of last year’s The Sound of the Smiths but — once again — they fail to make an appearance here.)
The real takeaway for fans, however, is the Johnny Marr’s remastering work here (and although Complete is presently the only place to purchase the newly-mastered versions of these albums, there are apparently plans in place to individually re-release each disc individually next year). While certain gripes have existed about the CD versions of the band’s catalog, Marr addresses everything here, upping the volume, removing a majority of the tinny-sounding high-end that existed on certain recordings. Case in point… compare the new version of proto-rocker “London” to its very compressed-sounding original. Most importantly, Marr gives each instrument a bit more room to breathe in the recordings, which might not be as impressive-sounding when you listen to anything off of their debut album (the differences between versions of “This Charming Man” are only really evident in the way that Morrissey’s vocals stand out a bit more in the mix), but once you get into the latter albums and singles, these adjustments give a nearly night-and-day contrast. “Girlfriend in a Coma” bounces along with a newfound warmth, “Asleep” has its edges softened ever-so-slightly for the right effect, and “Golden Lights” sounds crisper than it ever has before, making Morrissey’s vocal effect-wash sound as clear as you’ve ever heard it. Although the remastering here isn’t a revelation on the same level that it was for the 20th Anniversary Collector’s Edition of the Stone Roses debut album, it still serves its material extremely well, making a pretty hard argument for Complete being a definitive set for collectors.
Although the band’s fans are still awaiting a great deal of things from the vaults, Complete at least feels like a step in the right direction, providing a pretty conclusive go-to for fans who are looking for a good (if somewhat pricey) starting point for jumping into the expansive catalog for the first time. Complete doesn’t break any new ground, but it does allow you to have one of the most influential bands in all of rock music rounded up in one place — and for that alone, Complete (misleading title be damned) is very much worth your time.