In 1986, the Smiths released their best album, The Queen is Dead. This is a scientific fact. It has their best political tune (the title track), their best love song (“There is a Light and It Never Goes Out”) and their best song period (“I Know It’s Over”). Carried by Morrissey’s beautiful, lacerating lyrics and Johnny Marr’s shimmering guitar, The Queen is Dead is a great record.
Which is probably why Strangeways, Here We Come, the group’s 1987 follow-up, doesn’t always get the credit it's due. It’s good, but it’s not the best Smiths album. It isn’t even the best Smiths release from its given year; for us Yanks, that would be the singles collection Louder Than Bombs. Compared to Queen, it’s a maudlin, even goofy record. Here is where Morrissey started telling dark stories with a newfound love of camp, either intentionally (“Girlfriend in a Coma,” “Death of a Disco Dancer”) or not (“Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”). It was a radical shift after Queen’s earnest assertions of heavenly ways to die. Indeed, Strangeways is the one Smiths release that could possibly be called “underrated.”
I say “possibly” because, well, it’s still well-thought of. It’s just not quite as celebrated. But at just 36 minutes, it’s a thrillingly quick listen. “A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours” is a haunting opener, all ominous upstrokes and ghosts. “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” amps up the glam rock undercurrents that Morrissey would cultivate a few months later on his first solo record, Viva Hate. If you wanted to reduce Moz’s solo career to a single track, this Smiths cut might do, from the braggadocio, sarcastic vocals to the big, strutting drumbeat.
The record is not without its surprises, though, and the first one is “Death of a Disco Dancer.” A solid chunk of the songs on Strangeways are proto-Morrissey solo songs (“I Started…”, “Stop me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before,” “Paint a Vulgar Picture”), but “Death of a Disco Dancer” is a thunderous tune that builds into a synth-laden frenzy. Morrissey goes on a tangent lyrically (“Love, peace and harmony? / Oh very nice… but maybe in the next world”), but it’s Marr who dominates here, laying down guitar, synth and piano lines that create a heavenly discordance. No wonder Morrissey still trots this one out live. That the album can then turn to the cheery, airy “Girlfriend in a Coma” makes that noise that much more apparent.
Strangeways is an album of big rock moves. These songs are among the group’s catchiest. They even trot out studio tricks like strings for fun. But the album also packs some pleasing left turns. “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” is the most Smiths-y, as its driven by Marr’s trademark jangley guitar work, but it’s pleasantly out of place here. Same for “Unhappy Birthday.”
Ah, but the best track is the last one. “I Won’t Share You.” It’s the simplest song, driven primarily by Marr on autoharp. It’s the most haunting, especially when the reverb kicks in. And it also, in a way, feels like the one completely genuine track on the record. Morrissey doesn’t mask his intentions in camp and sarcasm. Oh sure, it’s still got some of his wit (“Has the Perrier gone straight to my head?”) and ego (“I won’t share you / With the drive / And the dreams inside / This is my time”), but it’s such a beautifully performed song.
Strangeways has a lot going for it, and a lot of baggage to bear. Because it followed The Queen is Dead. Because it’s the last Smiths record. Because “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” is kind of cheesy. Despite these things, it’s still a phenomenal record.