#37: The Smiths – “The Queen is Dead” (1986)

I am sad that I never paid attention to The Smiths when I was seventeen, because I would have eaten this up with a spoon. I think, at the time, that I was a bit scared of an album with a title like The Queen is Dead; it sounds like the sort of thing someone cool and interesting would listen to. Now, a decade later, it sounds like something that someone cool and interesting would listen to when they were seventeen. It is a strange feeling, which I have rarely had this clearly, but I think I’ve missed the boat on this one.

If I’m completely honest I am still not sure, several listens later, what I think of The Queen is Dead beyond the fact that I would have liked it a lot more a decade ago. It’s Morrissey, though, isn’t it? You either like his vocal fingerprint – which is unmistakeable at eighty paces – or it winds you up. You either appreciate the delicate frisson of highbrow and lowbrow culture, or you think he’s a dickhead who needs to stop namedropping John Keats, and incidentally pick a nail varnish that isn’t black. Morrissey is, above all else, the sort of person whose autobiography gets published by Penguin and then gets hatchet-jobbed to bits by A. A. Gill (may he rest in intermittent peace). The Queen is Dead is, above all else, made by that person, and I think what makes or breaks it for you – I’ve said this before – is whether you want to sit next to that person at a party.

Aged seventeen, I would have loved this. Now, I’m not so sure.

But then again, there’s no accounting for taste. If you ask the NME, this is the greatest album of all time. If you ask me, the NME needs to take its hands out of its pockets and learn to join in a little. This is not bad music, at all – it’s good music, but it’s music by the sort of people who read L’Etranger in sixth form and who still thinks performative loneliness and ironic self-dislike are more interesting than rolling up your sleeves and joining in. It’s hit a cultural zeitgeist, but that zeitgeist is one of mildly self-pitying misanthropy. This is the High Fidelity of albums, except that Nick Hornby wasn’t being entirely straight-faced about it. This album is more straight-faced than High Fidelity.

Am I too gung-ho for The Smiths? Is that the problem?

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I feel like I’m being a bit of a killjoy. The Smiths are having a bit of a renaissance at the moment – the Morrissey biopic England is Mine premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this year, where I am reliably informed it was pretty good. I feel like they’ve been following me round the shop-floor soundtracks of Scotland in the last few weeks. (“Will somebody please just let this man get what he wants? It might shut him up a bit.”) I can’t really begrudge them – nothing says “a decade of the Tories and not terribly amused about it” like the title track here.

And I rather like when it gets a bit political, even if “The Queen is Dead” the track sounds a bit like it has an extra singer joining in from the bottom of a well. The best bit is the instrumental section towards the end – maybe I just have a soft spot for songs with a long purely instrumental component, or maybe the non-verbal bits really are the best. As far as I’m concerned, The Queen is Dead improves greatly when the vocals pipe down and let everyone else have a go, and indeed when it’s focused outside a single person’s skull: “Vicar in a Tutu” is delightfully tongue-in-cheek; after what feels like almost an entire album of gazing at my shoes, “Some Girls are Bigger than Others” sounds more like the sort of thing I want to listen to, the more I sit next to it.

So let’s call it a mixed bag. The clever, the inane, the interesting, and the vaguely excruciating, all jumbled in together. I would say that at least it’s not predictable, but I’ve been at this party, and sat next to The Man Who Loves The Smiths. I am sorry to have to tell you that I did not give him my telephone number, and at any rate I’m not sure he would have wanted it.