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Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011

The Smiths

Complete (Rhino)

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Some have dismissed the Smiths as merely glum, but that would not do justice to the band's sly irony and ignores the feeble ray of hope that lit most of their songs. It's also a sign that their worst critics weren't really listening. The reissue of all four studio albums by the Smiths—plus their contractual obligation live effort and a trio of discs with hits and rarities—is an opportunity to reflect back on one of the '80s signal rock bands.

On one level, the songs were simplicity itself, spare and with infrequent echoes of the Beatles or the Velvet Underground amid the dirgey folk-rock strumming of guitarist Johnny Marr. The melodies were a suitably downbeat setting for the lyrics of the Smiths' vocalist and persona figure, Morrissey. A sensitive and sometimes prickly soul, Morrissey sang in woeful tones of cruel schoolmasters and childhood abuse, the awkwardness of being shy and the painful realization of failure. Occasionally, he embraced the socio-political, notably his jeremiad against eating animals, "Meat is Murder." But mostly Morrissey's lyrics were as introspective as an afternoon alone in the bedroom mirror.

The Smiths benefited on later albums from higher fidelity, a dab of polish and fancier arrangements, which made them more accessible without obscuring the sulking if mordant presence of Morrissey. One of the outstanding figures to emerge from British post-punk, Morrissey had a gift for articulating ordinary situations with extraordinary observations on songs such as "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" and "Bigmouth Strikes Again," and the courage to sift through emotions most of us would rather bury.
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