Before we start the review proper, let’s play a game I like to call “Spot the References to Death in The Smiths’ classic album Meat is Murder.” We’ll do this track-by track:
1. “Headmaster Ritual” - “I want to go home / I don’t want to stay / Give up living as a bad mistake.”
2. “Rusholme Ruffians” - “A schoolgirl is denied / She said: ‘How quickly would I die / If I jumped from the top of the parachutes?”
3. “I Want the One I Can’t Have” - “He killed a policeman when he was 13 / And somehow that really impressed me.”
4. “What She Said” - “What she said: ‘I smoke ‘cos I’m hoping for an early death / AND I NEED TO CLING TO SOMETHING!” [Capitalization straight from the lyric sheet]
5. “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” - “Well, it suddenly struck me / I just might die with a smile on my face after all.”
6. “How Soon Is Now?” - “So you go and you stand on your own / And you leave on your own / And you go home, and you cry and you want to die.”
7. “Nowhere Fast” - “And when I’m lying in my bed / I think about life and I think about death / And neither one particularly appears to me.”
8. “Well I Wonder” - “Well I wonder / Do you see me when we pass? / I half-die.”
9. “Barbarism Begins At Home” - No explicit references to death; however, the song is about child abuse.
10. “Meat is Murder” - It’s right there in the title.
And I restricted myself to one per song! Suffice it to say, this album seems like a major bummer. Yet that’s just Morrissey’s fatalistic melodrama talking, and in the context of the songs, you can tell that he usually isn’t taking himself all that seriously. The music itself is often quite energetic; there’s no stopping the rush of Johnny Marr’s guitar on “What She Said” and “The Headmaster Ritual,” and those songs, combined with the bass-driven “Barbarism Begins at Home,” are the hardest rockers in the Smiths' catalog. Meanwhile, “I Want the One I Can’t Have” is a perfect slice of joyous Britpop, “Nowhere Fast” rides a jaunty locomotive rhythm straight out of the Johnny Cash playbook, and “Rusholme Ruffians” fills out the county fair scene illustrated in the lyrics with Marr’s rockabilly guitar styling.
While Meat is Murder stands right up there with The Queen is Dead on musical variety, it still has more than its share of downbeat songs to soundtrack your next sulking session. “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” and “Well I Wonder” are so pretty and heartbroken it hurts to listen to them (but in a good way that somehow makes you feel better), while “How Soon Is Now?”, the hit single added to the U.S. version of the album to boost sales, is the greatest anthem of passive-aggressive loneliness ever penned. Alienated teenagers will be taking solace in this album for generations to come.
More than any other Smiths album, Meat is Murder really develops its grooves: “How Soon Is Now?” vamps on its iconic delay riff for almost seven minutes, while the funky “Barbarism Begins at Home” begs listeners to get up and dance their troubles away for just as long. For other bands, long outros and stretched-out instrumental passages usually spell trouble, but when listening to the Smiths, you usually don’t want the song to end anyway, so it works out.
This would be a perfect album if not for the closing title track. While “Meat is Murder” is nowhere near as bad as some critics would have you belief, it definitely pales in comparison to the other 9 tracks. As usual, Morrissey’s heart is in the right place, but his ham-fisted plea against eating animals would probably have converted more listeners to vegetarianism if it was pared with less dull, plodding music. Call it cynical, but that’s just my opinion.
If you can only buy one Smiths album…make it The Queen is Dead. But if you can spare the cash for two, I would highly recommend Meat is Murder. You don’t have to be a sad sack to love the Smiths; you just need to have a heart, something this album has in spades.