Ok. So I’m going to write about The Smiths now. I am not an authority on The Smiths. I am not “a smiths fan”, although as will become clear I really really like The Smiths if that makes sense. I haven’t read any other writing about The Smiths. But I have been reading Morrissey’s Autobiography* and last week, on a dark bus that took me from Lincoln to the small town of Spilsby where my Granny lives I listened to Hatful of Hollow and I had some thoughts.
I don’t understand why anyone doesn’t like The Smiths. They are so perfect. And by that I mean they aren’t perfect – they are awkward and mawkish and overly lush and Morrissey is grating both in tone and in turn of phrase and this is what makes them so so perfect. The disconnect between the guitar and voice – the way the bass and guitar are just ceaselessly shifting around each other. OH MAN. Come on? Who could resist? Me, that’s who.
I guess I’ve always liked listening to The Smiths but I’ve stopped myself getting in any further. Smiths fans look like they’re in pretty deep, and they’ll never get out and I’m afraid of that kind of commitment. And I suppose I was always a little afraid I would climb inside a Smiths song, take those lyrics to heart and find out there was nothing there. Morrissey is such a contrary figure and such a total arse and it seemed so possible that those lyrics, that mournful yelping was just calculated waffle.
I feel writing something about it now because I know its not waffle. For the first time, somehow, I’ve actually listened to The Smiths’ lyrics and this is what I found. There is a specificity; a world that makes complete and utter sense. Whether you “understand” it or not is beside the point. It all adds up and it is not lazy. Every word does something.
I don’t know why it took reading Morrissey’s Autobiography to get this. Lots of people just get it straight away. But I think there is a sense in fearing something so adored and idolised, and there is definitely sense in waiting until the right time to understand a song. Although The Smiths are no doubt perfect music for teenagers, for drowning in your own uncontrollable emotions, they are also perfect for a 25 year old who should know better but seems to know both less and more than she did when she was 17. For example when I was 17 I didn’t know why Morrissey was so sad. But now he’s written a book that helpfully explains everything and nothing all at once.
The Autobiography, and The Smith’s lyrics both contain something that I really value in songwriting. Honesty and specificity, combined with a beautiful cloudiness, an ambiguity which provides the space for the listener/reader to think.
The lyric that I’ve been thinking about this week is in “This night has opened my eyes”. The chorus is so neat and so rhythmically contained and expressive:
“The dream is gone but the baby is real”
There’s a contrast between the vague, almost meaningless word “dream” and the very real, concrete “baby”, which is what the song is all about, about the contrast between the fantasy (poets/fools/love) and the reality (news of the world/shoeless child). The chorus ends with
“And I’m not happy
And I’m not sad”
I love the clarity of this line so much. It really speaks to the need for balance in expression. A song that was as honestly, brutally expressive about only sorrow would be uncomfortable, or unsuccessful somehow. The line “I am sad” would achieve nothing, especially delivered in Morrissey’s mournful tones. “Heaven knows I’m miserable now” only works because there’s a knowing element in the construction – an obfuscation in the colloquial, joking phrase “heaven knows”, and in the inevitability of its repetition throughout the song. But this line, with its denial of either emotion expresses so much. So much of the in-between that good songs capture.
So, this is how I feel about The Smiths now. I feel excited that somethings changed between me and them. I feel happy that if you give them time and patience things will speak to you, that you don’t need to get everything straight away.
* A note on the Autobiography. It is totally ridiculous/amazing/hilarious/laborious/did I say ridiculous?. I would recommend it with enthusiasm.