When Tom Robinson sang “Glad to Be Gay” back in 1978, he did it as a dirge — the irony, while bracing, was entirely obvious. Six years later, the singer and lyricist of the Smiths — a man called Morrissey — has little use for the ironic mode: His memories of heterosexual rejection and homosexual isolation seem too persistently painful to be dealt with obliquely. Morrissey’s songs probe the daily ache of life in a gay-baiting world, but the bitterness and bewilderment he’s felt will be familiar to anyone who’s ever sought social connection without personal compromise. Whether recalling the confusion of early heterosexual encounters (“I’m not the man you think I am”) or the sometimes heartless reality of the gay scene, Morrissey lays out his life like a shoebox full of faded snapshots.
Given Morrissey’s rather somber poetic stance, The Smiths is surprisingly warm and entertaining. Though Morrissey’s voice — a sometimes toneless drone that can squeal off without warning into an eerie falsetto — takes some getting used to, it soon comes to seem quite charming, set as it is amid the delicately chiming guitars of cocomposer Johnny Marr. And the eleven songs here are so rhythmically insinuating that the persistent listener is likely to find himself won over almost without warning. From “What Difference Does It Make?,” a clever reprise of a venerable garage-punk riff, to the striking opener, “Reel around the Fountain,” and the U.K. hits “Hand in Glove” and “This Charming Man,” this record repays close listening.