“This story is old — I know/But it goes on,” bleats Morrissey on the Smiths’ fifth album. Perhaps it will, but not in this form. Recorded last spring, before guitarist Johnny Marr left the band (followed in turn by Morrissey’s announcement that he would pursue a solo career), Strangeways, Here We Come stands as the Smiths’ unexpected swan song. Ironically, it also stands as one of their best and most varied records: much like R.E.M. on Document, this is the sound of a band unbuttoning its collective collar despite the problematic artsiness of its lead singer.
If you’ve ever considered Morrissey a self-obsessed jerk, Strangeways, Here We Come isn’t likely to change your mind. He’s still indulging in angst chronicles like “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,” which is saddled with a turgid, string-drenched melody to boot. But throughout the album, Morrissey keeps returning to themes of death and parting (“I Won’t Share You,” “Death at One’s Elbow”), almost as if he had seen the breakup coming, and dishes out bitter indictments like “If you should die/I may feel slightly sad” (“Unhappy Birthday”). And in “Paint a Vulgar Picture,” a bittersweet elegy to a dead rock star, Morrissey makes the mistake of putting down record-company marketing (“Reissue! Repackage! Repackage!/Reevaluate the songs/Double-pack with a photograph”) on an album that has a merchandising address printed on its inner sleeve.
Morrissey is much more effective in “Death of a Disco Dancer,” which pinpoints Marr’s importance to the band, as it builds from his scraping-fingernail fret work to a cacophony of guitars and keyboards. Throughout Strangeways, Here We Come, Marr — who’s credited with strings and saxophone arrangements as well as guitar and piano — continually conjures up rich, Gothic frameworks for Morrissey’s ornate phrasing.
Bright acoustic guitars add a folksy grace to “Girlfriend in a Coma” and “Unhappy Birthday,” and a pumping piano turns “A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours” into a demented tango. In the album’s most propulsive number, “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before,” Marr and the Andy Rourke-Mike Joyce rhythm section whip up a frenzied brew that amply compensates for Morrissey’s tale of rituals of self-punishment following a failed love affair. Marr’s piercing solo at the end of the song not only is one of the record’s emotional highlights — it also proves it’s best the band split up rather than attempt to replace him.