After the modest success of their eponymous debut album, The Smiths wanted more. More attention. More acclaim. More—[gasp!]—hits. Indeed, they began to lose themselves within the heretical excesses of 80s rockism…taking more sugar at tea and occasionally experimenting with digital studio effects.
The brilliant interim singles “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and “William It Was Really Nothing” charted well in the UK and placed The Smiths, rather abruptly, amongst the most popular New Wave groups of 1984. Morrissey and Marr saw the opportunity to get their message across on a large scale. They did the unthinkable and openly targeted the masses, accepting interviews, performing on television, and posing for magazine covers. Unfazed by accusations of noncompliance with indie punctilios, The Smiths revamped their production aesthetic and crafted a more polished sound on their sophomore LP, Meat Is Murder.
Fiery, upbeat, and aggressive, “The Headmaster Ritual” is a great opening track. Morrissey describes his disastrous experiences at public school, referring to his educators as “spineless bastard swine” with “cemented minds.” Some of the imagery is so hideous it’d be hard to believe if it weren’t sung from The Divine Lips. Musically, the chord progression is extremely creative and Andy Rourke plays one of the best pick bass lines of the 80s. The culmination is the unintelligibly yodeled chorus, fitting for a song this overwhelming and emotional.
“How Soon Is Now?” What? Er, I dunno…
A whopping 400 days or so into his professional career, Marr wanted to move on from the arpeggiated jangle-style he had spent much of his youth so eloquently mastering. Or, at least, he wanted to incorporate more traditional chord-based guitar arrangements into the band’s new material. One obvious example is the uncharacteristically heavy “How Soon Is Now?” An ingenious resurrection the tremolo effect, (vieux jeu as of the mid 60s), Marr’s powerful blues riff wallops the listener over the head and shouts, “Listen!” An atmospheric slide guitar overdub adds harmonic tension yet glues the mix together. Blatantly epic and catchy from the start, it’s the kind of Smiths song even Americans can relate to. Morrissey sings one of the most captivating opening lines in pop history:
The album version of the song is extremely long—nearly seven minutes. An extended instrumental break commencing at 4:00 lulls the listener into a trance, making Morrissey’s vocal reemergence in the final chorus particularly compelling. Here he drives home the meaning of the song:
You shut your mouth
How can you say
I go about things the wrong way?
I am human and I need to be loved
Just like everybody else does
It’s about feeling ostracized, in desperate want of acceptance and companionship. Very seldom are songs this meaningful so catchy. Although not an accurate representation of The Smiths’ sound as a whole, “How Soon Is Now?” is undeniably a masterpiece—the song for which they will be most remembered.
My favorite track on the record is “Well I Wonder,” one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. Beginning with a high-pitched, harmonized bass line, a minor acoustic guitar chord, and an overtly simplistic drum pattern, the low end unexpectedly drops out for several bars and shrouds Morrissey’s croon in diffidence:
Well I wonder
Do you hear me when you sleep?
I hoarsely cry
Well I wonder
Do you see me when we pass?
I half die
The bass line soon reenters, solidifying the arrangement and bolstering the pitiable singer’s morale. At the end of the refrain, producer Steven Street drenches Morrissey’s voice in a ghostly echo, changing the mood from sad to eerie to downright frightening. It sounds as if Morrissey has died of a broken heart; as his spirit is slowly dragged into the underworld, he pleads for earthly remembrance:
Please keep me in mind
Please keep me in mind, oh…
These words encapsulate the silent anguish of unrequited love, but, unlike those of Shakespeare, pay it no homage.
But somehow still alive
This is the fierce last stand of all I am
“Well I Wonder” is not an ode. It’s a song of near defeat and, I would hence argue, a song of hope.
It’s a rum do that this soothingly dismal tune is followed by “Barbarism Begins at Home,” a song that could shake the panties off a prude. Indeed, this ditty is excellent as well, but the point is that Meat Is Murder suffers from a disjointed track order. There are other faults, as well. While lyrically magnificent, “Rusholme Rufians,” “What She Said,” and “Nowhere Fast” are musically bland…Elvis rip-offs sugarcoated with 80s studio gloss.
Furthermore, I take great umbrage at the title track, which, rather exasperatingly, concludes the album. “Meat Is Murder” is an unsavory foretaste of the protest songs that would crop up all too often in Morrissey’s solo career. In this grisly abomination, which begins with an onslaught of nauseating sound effects mimicking the moos of dying heifers in the abattoir, Morrissey declares that the slaughter of animals is tantamount to that of humans. I’m all for animal rights, but no song is going to convince me to abjure life’s one true pleasure. “Meat Is Murder” is an aggravating sermon set to music lamer than a veal calf. Morrissey wails:
This beautiful creature must die
A death for no reason
And death for no reason is murder
And the flesh you so fancifully fry
Is not succulent, tasty, or kind
Indeed, meat is not succulent, tasty, or kind when you’re dining in dark ages Manchester. If Morrissey had ventured to Spain, France, or even a Tandoori kitchen in Chelsea, he would have understood that meat is succulent, tasty, and when not boiled to a rubber and splattered with Worcestershire sauce, very kind.
It rankles me to no end that most Americans consider Meat Is Murder to be the preeminent Smiths album. The Smiths (1984) and The Queen Is Dead (1986) are masterpieces; clearly, this is not. Don’t get me wrong, Meat Is Murder is a very good album and contains some of the best lyrics ever written, but it’s far from perfect. B+
1. The Headmaster Ritual
5. That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore
6. How Soon Is Now
7. Well I Wonder