The final Smiths studio LP, and it’s pretty glorious. The preceding The Queen Is Dead gets all the attention, but Strangeways, Here We Come is anything but a letdown. It finds all members of the band stretching out a little and flexing their talents; there are some interesting guitar motifs from Johnny Marr that aren’t particularly traceable to the prior Smiths “sound,” and similarly Morrissey’s voice has gained in depth and richness through age and experience.
It’s thoroughly consistent and cohesive. At just 36 minutes, it never outstays its welcome but the songs are long and expansive enough to make their mark. The opening “A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours” is like a weird sort of melancholy ska, full of reverbed piano, while “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” ratchets up the pop quotient with a slightly harder-edged flair.
“Death of a Disco Dancer” is the kind of dreamy, pseudo-psychedelic Nico-meets-Siouxsie and the Banshees (with a side order of Beatles’ White Album thrown in) epic that foreshadows some of Morrissey’s solo work, and does it marvellously well, with a particularly floating, airy vocal from the man himself. “Girlfriend in a Coma” is one of the most perfect two minutes in the entire Smiths catalogue, featuring all the elements that make a classic alternative pop single – a heart-stoppingly gorgeous melody married to an inventive, imaginative arrangement shining the spotlight on Marr’s deft guitar, with one of Morrissey’s most accessible, smooth vocals and witty, cuttingly humorous lyrics.
“Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” recalls the harder-edged pop sound of the preceding “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish,” but this time the melody is more immediately attractive. One of Morrissey’s most admirable talents was matching the syllabics of his lyrics supremely to the rhythms of Joyce and Rourke’s interplay and Marr’s jangly melodies; this particular song is a prime example of the skill. (See the “delayed/waylaid” and “detained/restrained” lines, for instance.) Vocally, Morrissey shines throughout this record – the clarity with which he sings “who said I lied, because I never?” is wonderful. Later on, on the acoustic delight “Unhappy Birthday,” which Johnny Marr later said was a direction he would have liked to have taken The Smiths in had they continued in band form, the vocal is a confident and assured croon that Morrissey would perfect in his solo career.
Perhaps the album’s most famous song, and arguably its centrepiece, is the bewitching and melodramatic “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me.” Reading the lyrics off the page, it’s hard not to be won over by Morrissey’s peerless treading of the fine line between wallowing and fabulously witty, sardonic self-deprecation, but when sung over the lush, sumptuous backing track, it attains a real majesty and dark, swirling beauty – and that’s one of the keys to The Smiths’ sublime success. This album version also wins out because the main body of the song doesn’t begin until after two minutes of scene-setting sound effects and piano chords.
Another cornerstone of the record is “Paint a Vulgar Picture,” another example of the effortless marriage of Morrissey’s lyric with the rhythmic pulse of Rourke and Joyce and guitar melody of Marr, a deceptively pretty tale of record company sycophancy and commercial woe. The brief “Death at One’s Elbow” is an injection of light-relief rockabilly, in the mould of “Vicar in a Tutu” from The Queen Is Dead, before the emotional closer “I Won’t Share You,” a melancholy, breathy, and loving lyric and vocal from Morrissey sung atop a simple and gorgeous autoharp line from Marr. As the final entry into the Smiths’ recorded legacy (it was not their absolute final recording, but their last song on their last album does lend it some degree of finality), it’s pretty hard to beat. A wonderfully emotional, apt closer.
The Smiths’ legacy is built on a run of fine records and memorable singles, all packaged together with the iconic Morrissey/Marr writing partnership, Morrissey’s lyrics and image, and what The Smiths meant to ’80s England and beyond. The Queen Is Dead is generally taken as the one Smiths record to own above all others, but there’s a case for all of them, including the majesty that is Strangeways, Here We Come. It’s up there with their most cohesive, consistent, and imaginative, and remains a wonderfully accessible delight.