I usually don’t have trouble liking rock I’m “supposed” to like. (I.e. the generally accepted rock canon.) I can’t say the same about pop I’m supposed to “like”. (Frankly, I just prefer inventiveness, grit, rhythm and other such things to melody, aesthetic angles to precision arrangements, appropriate to clean production and mixing, etc.) I usually can at least bring myself to respect most rock music that has become canonical. Hell, often I can put aside my gut feelings and and least say “this is a pretty impressive feat even though I don’t particularly like the style of music.” But I can’t really here.
And the thing is, I like so-called “Brit-pop” normally. I love the Beatles. I am in the process of writing a book about how great they are. I went through a period where the Who were pretty much my favourite band. I respect the Kinks and I’ve grown to quite like them. I like the Small Faces. I think Blur is pretty damn great (if slightly overrated).
I’m not saying this album is bad. It’s not bad. It’s better than a lot of what was on the radio in 1986 Britain, I’m sure. It’s competent. It’s catchy enough. The lyrics are pretty great. (And this is coming from someone who doesn’t like Morissey at all.)
But there are two things this album isn’t, which Smiths boosters – and numerous rock critics – claim it is: great and important.
This album, and the other Smiths albums which I have yet to hear, is held up as some kind of landmark where British people rediscovered guitars. We are taught by the music press that the Smiths helped save guitar rock. I feel similarly about the Smiths and Springsteen: if this is guitar rock I don’t need more of it.
Why is that some critics must champion wussiness as upholding rock tradition when there are clear alternatives that are not wussy in the least? They did it with Springsteen, when scared boomers held him up over punk. And they did it with the Smiths, when critics – either wholly unfamiliar with the breadth of great American alternative rock in the ’80s, or put off by how “rock” it was – elevated a band like the Smiths to a status of champions of guitar-based rock music. Calling much of this “rock” isn’t exactly fair. Jangle pop is indeed appropriate. Guitar pop. Pop rock. Terms like that. There’s very little “rockness” (i.e. muscle) in this album, and its telling.
It’s hard for me to understand the Marr worship from this one album, as well. He has maybe a moment or two, where he shows he’s a pretty good rhythm player.
The production dates it, like so many ’80s albums. Say what you want about American alternative rock of the ’80s, but most of it does not have horrible ’80s drums or synthesizers in it. Alas, The Queen Is Dead has a little.
The other exaggerated thing about this album is its supposed importance. The Smiths wrought what exactly? To my ears many if not most of the decent Brit Pop bands of the’ 90s owe more to the Who than they do to the Smiths. Maybe I’m not up enough on the lesser lights of ’90s Brit Pop or on guitar-based rock music in England in the late ’80s, but that’s okay with me. After listening to this, I can’t say I’m particularly interested. I feel like what this album needs is a little – no, a lot – of Steve Wynn and Karl Precoda, or Baird Figig, or Joey Santiago, or anyone anywhere who knows what distortion is.