Billboard takes a good look at this classic, and final, Smith’s release. That includes the differing views of the band’s two clashing forces: Morrissey and Johnny Marr.
Three decades removed from the breakup of The Smiths, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong. Countless books and thinkpieces have been written about this fiercely original U.K. guitar band, and yet tracing the rift between singer Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr can be like figuring out what caused World War I or the financial crisis. Only it’s The Smiths, so this is serious.
Fans seeking clarity in Morrissey and Marr’s somewhat recent memoirs are bound to be disappointed. The onetime musical soulmates offer differing accounts of the group’s demise, neither especially enlightening. One thing Moz and Marr seem keener to discuss is Strangeways, Here We Come, the group’s posthumous final studio album.
While not really considered their best, it is still an evocative set.
“Every combination of chords has been done, but Johnny somehow manages the most imaginative bursts of sound on these final sessions, and the three other Smiths follow,” writes Morrissey in Autobiography. In Set the Boy Free, Marr recalls going into the sessions with an “agenda to use fewer overdubs and not fill up tall the space in the sound.” He also arrived at the Wool Hall studios in Bath, England, with a “new confidence” and “desire to shake things up.”
Confidence is something Marr never seemed to lack. As Set the Boy Free illustrates, he’s always approached things with very clear aesthetics in mind. On the second day he and Morrissey got together to work on music, before The Smiths even existed, Marr knew their first single would have silver writing on a navy-blue label, and that their debut album would be eponymously titled. For Strangeways, Marr envisioned opening the album with something radical: a song featuring all keyboards, no guitars. He achieved this with “A Rush and A Push and This Land Is Ours,” a striding dream-pop-ska oddity about reclaiming some lost part of yourself.
Morrissey devotes patches of Autobiography real estate to “Death of a Disco Dancer”—most notable for the rudimentary “Donnybrook punch-up” piano he himself plays on the track—and “Death at One’s Elbow,” a mad skiffle jam featuring rare backing vocals from Marr. Moz rates Marr’s voice a “honeyed flow,” despite Johnny’s insistence he couldn’t sing.
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