The Smiths: The Queen Is Dead (Deluxe Edition)
The Rhino re-release of the indie rock icons' greatest album is carefully and beautifully presented. It provides a welcome opportunity to revisit a true classic.
Decades later, it remains a challenging task pinning down what the Smiths were as a band and cultural entity.
When talking to fans, one gets the impression that the Smiths were a multitude of things to a variety of people, yet Morrissey and Marr wrote with clear perspectives of their own. Their work is infused with a sense of nostalgia and longing, both for a Britain that had long since passed by and for an era of music that was seen in the 1980s pop scene as anachronistic.
These twin perspectives are what initially defined the Smiths, and they infuse their landmark album The Queen Is Dead with a sense of importance and identity that the other Smiths albums lack, great though they may be. The album, reissued by Rhino on its 31st anniversary with a slew of demos and live recordings, represents the Smiths at the peak of their powers; it's an artistic statement that band never equaled.
Throughout his career, Morrissey has had two primary subjects for his writing: himself and Britain. More specifically, he sees himself as a misunderstood soul persecuted by a world that doesn't understand him, and he longs for a simple, honest working-class British existence that was upended by Thatcherite conservatism and never recovered. The Queen Is Dead features his most pointed attacks on both of those fronts on songs that would likely be remembered as self-indulgent were they not so brilliant at the same time.
The album's propulsive title track begins with a snippet of “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty", a deliberate recalling of the past that gets cut off with a foreboding feedback drone and pounding drums. Here, Morrissey's knives are out for the monarchy, symbols of upper-crust English society that he sees as useless, taxpayer-funded tabloid fodder. Yet, his anger disguises sorrow, a despondency over the loss of any social institutions to look up to and trust in.
Elsewhere, Morrissey lashes out at media and the world, turning himself into a literal martyr on “Bigmouth Strikes Again" while presenting his misunderstood nature in more universal terms on “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side". This is all relatively well-worn territory for Morrissey, and he'd eventually exhaust it so much that he would become a caricature of himself, but the vibrancy of these ideas expressed by a younger, hungrier man still resonate, just the way truly timeless work does.
Musically, The Queen Is Dead toes a line between consistency and adventurousness. The Smiths were always a relatively conservative band, preferring to stay with what worked for them and what they knew how to do well. While The Queen Is Dead doesn't trade in the relative monotony of the band's self-titled debut album, it doesn't have the hysterical, clear-the-decks attitude of Strangeways, Here We Come, either. Instead, Johnny Marr and engineer Stephen Street worked to deepen the band's sound without abandoning it entirely. Thus, typically Smiths-sounding Smiths tunes like “Cemetry Gates" or “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side" sound richer and deeper, an attribute accentuated by the new remaster.
Then there are the band's nods to music's past, such as the music hall kiss-off “Frankly Mr. Shankly" or the slight-yet-enjoyable rockabilly pastiche of “Vicar in a Tutu". The slow build and surprising warmth of “I Know It's Over" is a minor miracle made even stronger by a Morrissey lyric that is equal parts dour and hopeful. Their finest moment on the album, though, is still “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out", a song that could be seen as the quintessential Smiths anthem. Much has been written about this song, and there isn't much else to say other than it is very much the masterpiece that people say it is.
For those with interest in the production side of music, the demos included on the deluxe edition of The Queen Is Dead offer some interesting insights. A few songs find Morrissey working out lyrics on the fly, using turns of phrase that he would eventually discard. Most of all, it gives the listener a renewed appreciation of Stephen Street, whose work behind the boards with Marr gave these songs a heft that they just lack in demo form.
The collection of live performances included here end up reinforcing that notion, as the band sounds slightly lacking in a live setting. That said, the performance of the album's title track is absolutely ferocious and the closest to punk that the Smiths would ever get, so it's well worth a listen. Additionally, the set comes with a DVD containing all of the remastered tracks and a 12-minute promo film that probably won't be of interest to anyone outside of die-hard Smiths fans.
Regardless, this loving re-issue is more than overdue for such an important album. For a band that focused so much on songs, it's still something of a welcome surprise that the Smiths released something as cohesive and brilliant as The Queen Is Dead. In their short time together and in their subsequent careers as solo artists, Morrissey and Marr have yet to equal or surpass what they accomplished here. This one belongs to the ages.