As Morrissey returns to remind us of his almost self-parodic ridiculousness these days with recent single Spent the Day in Bed – includes one line rhyming “emasculation” with “castration” and I say no more – it’s hard to decide whether or not Warner are trying to console us or troll us with a brand new multi-disc deluxe reissue of The Smiths’ arguably best-ever album. Come to think of it, “console or troll” would make for a good latter-day Morrissey lyric, wouldn’t it?
Ah, The Queen Is Dead. What a brilliant and strange and ridiculous and inconsistent and funny and bleak and beautiful but mostly plain brilliant album. Its inherent dichotomy is captured in the first few seconds of the regicide-advocating opener and title track, as a creepy sample of Cicely Courtneidge singing Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty in The L-Shaped Room – a forewarning of some of the music hall comedy cringes that lie ahead – gives way to Mike Joyce’s bullying drums and Johnny Marr’s wailing feedback and wah-wah-smeared guitar riff. “Tied to your mother’s apron, no-one talks about castraaaaa-tion,” gurns Morrissey, amid a sprawling, angry lyric. No-one else except you, Morrissey – you do go on about castration a fair bit.
I’ll defer to Simon Goddard’s masterly track-by-track history of The Smiths, Songs That Saved Your Life, when it comes to properly surveying everything that made The Queen Is Dead fabulous in spite of its flaws. Sure, the oompah-oompah flatulence of Frankly Mr Shankly and the Carry On-level nudge-wink crapness of Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others besmirch a record that elsewhere gives us the soaring despair of I Know It’s Over, the witty, book-smart jangle of Cemetery Gates and the flyaway pop transcendence of The Boy With The Thorn In His Side.
In classic Smiths commercial suicide style, a track glamourising death wasn’t considered palatable to UK daytime radio listeners
But above all things this is the album that gave us There Is A Light That Never Goes Out – maybe The Smiths’ finest ever moment. A stirring ode to adolescent alienation, juxtaposing Marr’s elegant, sweeping synth-string adornments with one of Morrissey’s by turn most bleeding-hearted and patently, knowingly absurd lyrics, hailing getting crashed into by a double-decker bus beside the one you love as being “a heavenly way to die”. It’s a should-have-been mega hit single, but in classic Smiths commercial suicide style, a track glamourising death wasn’t considered palatable to UK daytime radio listeners.
Reissue packages being reissue packages – the vinyl and CD versions each span approximately 3,496 million discs each – The Queen Is Dead deluxe is packed with illuminating extras which you’ll probably listen to all of once. Be it demos which speak to how impressively fully fledged Marr’s vision of the record was even in its embryonic stages (famously Marr never knew what Morrissey would sing atop his compositions, he’d just hand over the music blind). Or recordings from a show in Boston which speak to what a stupendous live band The Smiths were in the summer of 1986, even as bassist Andy Rourke’s worsening heroin addiction and Morrissey’s increasingly overbearing persona widened fissures in the band.
“You cannot continue to record and simply hope that your audience will approve, or that average critics will approve, or that radio will approve,” speaks Morrissey of his impressions of the album 31 years on. “You progress only when you wonder if an abnormally scientific genius would approve – and this is the leap The Smiths took with The Queen Is Dead.” If you’re shrugging and/or frowning right now, then this is the natural response to pretty much anything Morrissey has to say any more. Luckily Marr is also on hand to proffer some typically reassuring straight-talking. “The Queen Is Dead was epic to make and epic to live,” he adds. That’s what we like to hear.