Precious Things Aren't Always Perfect: Why The Queen Is Dead Is No Classic
, July 21st, 2011 07:14
The Queen Is Dead is 25 years old, and the eulogies have been non-stop. But Ben Hewitt reckons it's not the masterpiece people would have you believe...
One month on from the 25th anniversary of The Queen Is Dead, and the rhapsodising has finally started to subside. For even without the added boon of that quarter-of-a-century milestone, we're told that the LP is The Smiths' magnum-opus; their most divine creation; their definitive album; nay, the definitive indie album of the last two-and-a-half decades, bar none. With snaps of Morrissey, Marr et al outside the Salfords Lads' Club adorning nearly every music mag and enraptured editorial gushing forth from blogs and broadsheets alike, trying to ignore The Queen Is Dead last month was akin to pretending that there wasn't some shindig or other taking place at Worthy Farm. No matter how fussy and obstinate Morrissey has become – whether it's unleashing his personal pack of hounds to sniff out burgers and sausages lest their meaty whiff infiltrates his nostrils, or offending another sect of society with some questionable comment- The Queen Is Dead is his, and The Smiths', undisputed masterpiece. And in the past 30 days, I've heard these words said a hundred times – maybe less, but probably more.
Yet even as a fully-fledged, gladioli-swinging Smiths devotee, I find myself at odds with the eulogising, because it seems to be coloured by some bizarre form of nostalgia – one that's born not out of fond recollections of carefree youth, but a perverse hankering for those oh-so-complicated teenage years of misery and isolation. The Independent's Andy Gill, for instance, sung its praises for being "an almost perfect soundtrack to teenage angst" and bringing back memories of "the sweet pain of adolescence". Now, why anyone would want to relive their youth if it was genuinely so unpleasant is another matter, but it seems as if the clamour for The Queen Is Dead isn't as such for the record itself, but for the circumstances in which it was devoured: sitting alone in the dark of the bedroom, perhaps, finding succour in the bleakness of 'Never Had No One Ever' or some strain of hope in 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out'. A flashback to a time in which life seemed hopelessly unfair, and only Morrissey knew exactly how you felt, and how to make it better. But sentiment doth not make for masterpieces, and The Queen Is Dead is far from perfect. It's not the greatest album of the last 25 years. It's probably not even the best album by The Smiths.
For how can we reconcile the 'greatest album of the last 25 years' shtick with the mirthless 'Frankly, Mr Shankly'? Does anyone really take pleasure in Morrissey the bard tossing off glib rhymes like "Sometimes I'd feel more fulfilled / Making Christmas cards with the mentally ill", or trade base insults such as "Since you ask / You are a flatulent pain in the arse?". The same can be said, too, for his boggle-eyed bewilderment on 'Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others', or the Carry On escapades of 'Vicar In A Tutu'. The buck doesn't stop with the lyrics, either; 'Frankly…' is The Smiths' obsession with vaudeville and music hall at its most stodgy, while the pastiche rockabilly of 'Vicar In A Tutu' sounds lightweight and tacky compared to, say, 'Shakespeare's Sister'.
As untouchable as the finest moments of The Queen Is Dead are – and make no mistake, the title track, 'I Know It's Over' and 'Never Had No One Ever' in particular should all be included in any pantheon of great Smiths songs – it can't not be marred as a whole by those aforementioned and considerable blunders. And at risk of being lynched by ardent Morrissey fanatics, I'm not convinced that 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out', for all its glory, should be held aloft as the ultimate Smiths anthem, either. It's the cornerstone of the LP; the swansong of an album that, according to Andy Gill, "best summarises their qualities in their most skilfully wrought form".
But at their finest, The Smiths' signature quality was playing on loneliness and isolation, without any hope on the horizon – and there is hope with 'There Is A Light', because despite the doomed romanticism and morbid yearning for a car crash, there's the prospect of desires being fulfilled: flesh and metal being fused together, twisted into one permanent pact, a love and light that can't be extinguished. It's too hopeful; it's too 'lighters-aloft'; it's too 'throw your arm around your best mate and down a can of Stella'.[it also make an excellent euphoric night closer at ever Trash - ED] Just as Alex Denney described the lack of nuances in Jeff Buckley's cover of 'Hallelujah' as "a kind of upper-middlebrow 'Angels'", 'There Is A Light…' is the most famous Smiths song. It's The Smiths' song for people who don't actually like The Smiths that much. It's brilliant, and beautiful, but a perfect encapsulation of The Smiths' mission statement? For my money, the unremitting bleakness of 'Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me' and 'How Soon Is Now' are more worthy of the accolade, to name but two.
It's not just The Queen Is Dead that's hampered by the odd clanger, though: for all their majesty, The Smiths never quite nailed that 'perfect' album. Strangeways, Here We Come is my personal favourite – boasting not just the exquisite aforementioned 'Last Night I Dreamt…', but also the criminally unheralded 'Death Of A Disco Dancer' – but it's hard to declare anything a masterpiece when it features the God-awful 'Girlfriend In A Coma'. The Smiths has the run of killer singles, but it's been dated by that muddy, murky production.
Meat Is Murder is freer of the oft-recurring flaws than the others, but most purists would plump for the compilation Hatful Of Hollow as a superior choice – and therein, perhaps, lies the appeal of The Smiths: much like their lead singer, they were flawed and never without reproach, capable of producing something utterly majestic one minute and irksomely mundane the next. If The Smiths found favour and resonance with outcasts and misfits, then it's fitting that their pristine collection is a compilation, in which the magic is distilled and the ugly bits are chopped and left on the cutting room floor. For them, being 'perfect' was never really an option.