At some point in college I acquired a Smiths album. I was downloading an absurd amount of music on a weekly basis–discovering Talib Kweli alongside Neutral Milk Hotel–so it's amazing I even got around to listening to the record. I couldn't say now which Smith's album it was, and my computer–and most of my music with it–was stolen a year after college, but my best guess is that it was a compilation, probably a Best Of. I liked it. I liked Morrissey's strange, flat crooning, and Marr's swirling, jangly guitar work. This was before I actually knew who Johnny Marr was, or before he joined up with my high school sweethearts, Modest Mouse. Before I began reading seemingly daily accounts about Morrissey's most recent, explosively dumb remarks. Before Macklemore jacked the singer's haircut.
So I was surprised when I listened to their self-titled debut and found so very little to like. I found it boring, in fact. Morrissey doesn't move around in the music much, preferring his trademark near-monotone, rambling lyrical style. The few times he slips into falsetto, I really wish he hadn't. The idea that Marr may someday be a great guitarist is buried in there somewhere, but his style is still shockingly similar from one song to the next. The only real thing setting most of these songs apart is the tempo, as if the band thought they could pull one over on us by speeding up or slowing down the songs, feigning a little Clash-idolatry. Morrissey appears to be scared or frustrated or confused by women, as if the idea that any band in the 80's could be anything less than masterful when it came to the opposite sex was a revelation. The vague lyrics touch on easy-to-mine subjects like child abuse and murder and sadness and shit. He name-checks dead kids. Controversy stoked the flame of their early career. Duh.
So what was it about that Smiths compilation I once owned and loved so much? Sure, the band got better, more inventive. The production improved. I got into Interpol. But that can't fully explain it. There was something else in there. I was an undergrad at a small liberal arts college. I was discovering stuff like. . .the world. Girls. Bad poetry written in tattered Moleskins. (“I wish I were a rose so I could give myself to you”). I voluntarily watched terrible movies about hard-hitting subjects like child abuse and school-shootings. I remember a teary-eyed conversation with a girlfriend my sophomore year after a viewing of the awfully unhappy movie Happiness. By the end of my freshman year the campus police informed me they had taken out a restraining order on my crazy (and very small) Japanese ex-girlfriend, for my protection. To say I was utterly baffled by women would be an understatement.
Which is all to say I was, clearly, in the prime of my Smiths-ready life. Whether I was even consciously paying attention to the lyrics or not, I was certainly living them. Besides, the great thing about The Smiths, and about Morrissey's voice in particular, is that you can get the full meaning of the songs without really even listening to them. The general malaise of Morrissey's croon and the occasional snippets of lyrics are more than enough. I soaked it up. I was finding Morrissey's politics for myself and then translating my newfound worldly woes into terrible verse, thinking I could scrub the world clean one poem or story at a time. I wrote a poem about killing God titled “Satan Was a Gunslinger.” Another about a mime committing suicide. I was finding new reasons to be simultaneously afraid of and excited by sex, and still not getting any. So many emotions! So much Smiths!
I know I shouldn't even attempt an explanation at what might be in Morrissey's head–the man clearly struggles to do it for himself–but the more generous side of me would like to say that maybe he understood the melodrama, that he was hamming it up a bit. A few albums after their debut, on The Queen is Dead standout track “Frankly, Mr. Shankly,” Morrissey gave us what I can only understand as a wink at his younger self, as if to say he, too, understood the allure of that first record. “I didn't realize you wrote poetry,” he sang. “I didn't realize you wrote such bloody awful poetry.”
Of course, there are a few grown-ass rock critics who would disagree with all of the above, who would say The Smiths are timeless, that they made a space for something new in the dance-crazed, butt-rockin' 80s, that you need not be a confused and crazed young man to appreciate the music. Obviously, they're right. But I've moved on to other bands. Now I listen to more sophisticated music. About confused politics and heartbroken young men.