One happy recent Saturday night I did something I have done every once in a while for around a quarter of a century. With its piano intro dancing round my head I put on Strangeways, Here We Come and tried to work it out.
As ever, the last album from The Smiths played the same game again. The first side sounded packed with high points. What I later came to know to be both both singles and that remarkable first song, managing to be about Irish nationalism and late-nightmares. For me it is synonymous with light bouncing round the cabins of European night trains in the 1990s. Then side two, which tails off to a crescendo of is-that-it and where-did-that-go, still remarkable and puzzling.
Strangeways was the first Smiths album I heard. It was one of those miraculous happenings of a school friend passing on a knock-off tape. I don’t recall first listening to it, but can still feel it in the pocket of my school blazer like a package of secret intelligence. What a chain reaction from there.
Strangeways misses the boat in the head-down drive to put the Smiths in their rightful place – a trickier minefield than ever as more time passes from gladioli waving teenage icon Morrissey to today’s version. Neither are found on this album. There’s none of the bluntness of the lyrics from Meat is Murder, where teachers are violent and animals die horrible deaths. The confidence of the The Queen is Dead, with fantastical characters and romantic love stories is replaced by a vaguely-expressed stridency, the drive coming from Marr’s fabulous songs and in places a more experimental direction. When Morrissey does go on the attack he heads straight for the music industry in Paint a Vulgar Picture, and then for an unnamed friend who is walking away from him. He knows it and sounds proud and haughty: if someone feels the need to say they won’t share then the other’s gaze has turned elsewhere.
This album is often painted as a what if: what if The Smiths had somehow found a way through the morass of issues that derailed them and made more albums? Did they lack the killer instinct to become U2 or Depeche Mode, to emerge from the 1980s as a hit machine, Morrissey being too divisive and contrarian to set the controls for the heart of the sun? Then again, with a little give, hints could have become something else. Marr’s on-stage guitar heroism with The Pretenders after the Smiths split, and Morrissey instead of Neil Tennant and Bernard Sumner on Electronic could have created something as unique as anything The Smiths did before. Or perhaps the whole thing fades away like other guitar groups of the 80s as other styles take hold.
Strangeways does nothing to answer these unanswerables. I long ago lost the ability to critically evaluate it. On it goes, every now and again for more than half my life, what a mysterious and wonderful thing Strangeways is to treasure.