“Has the world changed/or have I changed?” Morrissey asks on “The Queen Is Dead,” the opening cut on the Smiths’ third U.S. album, and for once it’s not a rhetorical question. Not that he’s forsaken his hobbies or anything: this LP has songs about being buried alive, picnicking in cemeteries, Mom, Oscar Wilde and the comforts of total isolation. There’s no mistaking Morrissey’s Edith Piaf-on-the-dole vocals or Johnny Marr’s wall o’ guitars, but the Smiths sound different somehow — self-assured instead of self-obsessed.
It’s hard to imagine Morrissey poking fun at himself, but here’s the same self-righteous lettucehead of Meat Is Murder singing a song called “Bigmouth Strikes Again.” As pedaled guitars stretch and yawn (wah-WAH) through tumbling drums, Morrissey comes clean, acknowledging how an articulate wit can slip into glibness. He seems to have opened his eyes a bit, or at least the windows of his bed-sit.
“The Queen Is Dead” parodies media fascination with the royal family over bombastic guitar bursts and an aggressive bass line, while “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” is a lark, an ambitious gofer’s resignation set to a light, Kinks-like shuffle. “Vicar in a Tutu” has a countrified steel guitar wildly inappropriate to Morrissey’s very English diction, but that twang does render the song’s central image indelible: a preacher raging behind the pulpit in full drag. What would Johnny Cash make of that?
As expected, Morrissey dons his misery-goat costume for “I Know It’s Over” and “Never Had No One Ever” (except for Mom, natch). But when he’s at his most pretentious, pitting Wilde against Keats and Yeats in a battle of the bards on “Cemetry Gates,” Morrissey sounds clearer and more melodic than ever before, wafting unlikely lines to high heaven. Like it or not, this guy’s going to be around for a while.