Released in September 1987 and approaching its 30th anniversary, Strangeways, Here We Come is the fourth and final album from British alternative rockers The Smiths. Recorded at The Wool Hall, a recording studio owned by Tears for Fears, the album was certified Gold in both the U.K. and U.S. and is largely considered one of the best albums of the 1980s. Both singer Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr have said Strangeways is their favorite Smiths record, and that “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” was their favorite song. No less than David Bowie concurred with that sentiment, telling Q magazine that “I still rate Morrissey as one of the best lyricists in Britain” in a 1992 interview.
Why I’ve Been Avoiding It
The Smiths have long been my musical white whale. I know that I should like them, and I’ve tried a variety of entry points, but I just couldn’t force myself to get it. A big part of that was Morrissey’s voice, an airy croon that can sound out of place at first on a rock record. Another factor would be the “jangle pop” tag The Smiths are often saddled with. Something about the word “jangle” just rubs me the wrong way, kind of like some people feel about the word “moist.” However, after discovering and loving Morrissey’s solo albums Your Arsenal and Vauxhall and I, and reading that Marr himself was growing disillusioned with “jangle pop” around the recording of Strangeways, I’m ready to dive in again.
Marr’s disillusionment must have run deep, because Strangeways kicks off with a track that doesn’t even feature guitar. Instead, Marr mans the keyboards for “A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours” while a surprisingly robust rhythm section holds down the low end. It’s a far cry from the often trebly mess that is ’80s production, with the full-bodied sound creating a welcoming atmosphere for new generations of listeners. Marr doubles down with distorted guitar stabs opening “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish,” matching Morrissey’s aggressive (for him) vocal delivery to kick off the album with a stirring one-two punch that keeps the “jangle” at a minimum.
Holding back on their “jangly” inclinations pays off big time, making more traditional Smiths songs like the beautifully sardonic “Girlfriend in a Coma” and deeply sarcastic “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” stand out even more. Morrissey shines as both a lyricist and an actor on the former track, twisting his voice to wring traces of selfish worry, irritation, boredom, and ultimately empathy from the simple repeated phrase “I know it’s serious.” Marr holds up his end too, creating hilarious and heartbreaking contrast with his cheerful guitar and synthesized string arrangements.
Elsewhere, Morrissey indulges his obsession with love and the despair that often comes with it to fine effect. “A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours” channels that despair to ask whether love is even worth pursuing if it blinds you to the injustice and corruption of the world around you. That idea gets illustrated in “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,” which kicks off with a field recording of the U.K. miners’ strike of 1984-85, Great Britain’s most violent industrial dispute of the 1900s. Morrissey contrasts that intro with a song of complete romantic resignation, moaning “the story is old, I know, but it goes on.” At that point, the conflicting narratives merge, driving home the point that injustice will endure as long as our emotions cause us to overlook the plight of others.
The album sags a bit in its second half, with “Unhappy Birthday” and “Death at One’s Elbow” trafficking in the same exaggeratedly bitter invective that would later inspire some of the worst tendencies of early-2000s emo. “Paint a Vulgar Picture” also suffers from its anti-record-label stance, which has since been undermined by The Smiths’ own tendency to repackage and rerelease their material in a variety of arguably needless configurations. However, the album ends strongly with “I Won’t Share You,” a seemingly tender ballad that actually functions as Morrissey’s final kiss-off to Marr and the band, which would call it quits prior to the record’s release.
While it isn’t perfect, Strangeways, Here We Come has more than earned its status as a classic of ’80s alternative rock. Morrissey and Marr push and pull at each other throughout, creating a unique musical environment where nothing is quite as it seems. The full-bodied production makes this a great entry point for anyone who either missed out on or was too young for the band during their heyday, and “Girlfriend in a Coma” and “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” are absolute must-hears for anyone even the least bit interested in the interplay of music and lyrics. Go get it!
“Girlfriend in a Coma”
“Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”
“Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”