Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Dark Trilogy Part 2

For about a week to 10 days in eighth grade, I would get off the bus and run the quarter of a mile or so down from the stop to my house, bust through the front door and turn on the TV in my room where MTV was already queued (if you will) to show me the following three videos (and I’m going to use bullets because they’re awesome):

• The Pixies: Here Comes Your Man
• The Church: Under the Milky Way
• The Smiths: Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before

It seems like there was a video by the Farm too, but they suck.

And then on a Thursday, Under the Milky Way was replaced by the Church’s second single from Starfish, Reptile, and I ran out and bought the album the next night.

But this entry is not about that album. Say what?

That brief week and a half was one of my earliest introductions to “alternative” music and to three of the bands that would come to represent me in my maturing years and still do so to this very day. And the next of these bands I was to delve into, roughly three years later, was The Smiths, when Susan and Cybil bought me Louder Than Bombs for my 17th birthday. But this entry isn’t about that album either. C’mon, dude! Nor is it about Strangeways Here We Come, where the aforementioned Smiths video/single came from. All right, let’s get to it…

Ok, it’s about Meat is Murder. Oh, eek, that one. Yes, that one. It’s amazing to me how this album sports one of if not the biggest mantra that the Smiths are known for and yet is pretty much overlooked, even by many die hard fans, in the Smiths catalogue. I’m sick to death of hearing about how perfect The Queen is Dead is, or how underrated Strangeways is, or how they were at their best when they were at their freshest with the debut. Those are all great albums, I’m not arguing that, but why is it that Meat is Murder is pretty much only known for that phrase and the song How Soon is Now? That song wasn’t even supposed to be on the stupid album. And it’s boring. Bleh. Ok, ok, I’ll settle.

I’m not here to argue the perfection of this album. In fact I think it’s flawed in many ways, which is part of what makes it so endearing. I mean as I’m listening to it right now, I’m reminded why I really don’t care for Barbarism Begins at Home. It just goes on forever with no purpose. I mean it’s a nice groove, but cut it down by two minutes, please! And yet I love the very end when the bass does that little funky alteration to kick out the song. It’s the little things, people. All right, I need to focus here and get back on topic, which overall is the Dark Trilogy, installment two, The Smiths: Meat is Murder.

Where my first installment, The Cure’s Faith, used imagery (both musically and lyrically) to deal with the murky mope of skepticism and seclusion, Meat is Murder takes issues head on and at face value, and often with a back beat and strum that is quite uppity. And herein lies another brilliance of music, when you’ve got a tune that has the mindless kids shaking their arses off on the dance floor, but also crying themselves to sleep later that night.

As I’ve said before, the song as a whole is what counts, and so the music comes first while the lyrics only find import if the song hits me at the right level (yes, there are lots and lots of songs where I can beat out every random fill or guitar lick on the steering wheel, but not sing one complete verse). And most anyone in the know who knows me can tell you that my all time guitar hero is Johnny Marr. And never did he shine so brightly as he did in his four-year tenure with the Smiths. And while he is a large part of the music, let us not forget our friends Andy and Mike on bass and drums respectively, without whom the Smiths may have been a great band, but definitely not the same band, the band we all love or at least love to hate.

Johnny was big on layers, and often had two (or more) guitar melodies running over the strummed chords. This leaves me wondering which ones he would have played in a live setting (enter Craig Gannon), and I love seeing/hearing early live stuff and exactly what he’s doing on stage, which in some cases (as in Pretty Girls Make Graves), was better than what was on the album. But, more to the point, here on Meat is Murder, all these different parts are open and evident and not (as with the Queen is Dead) lost in a heavy coating of reverb. And the boys work up several styles here to accent these brilliant riffs and progressions, from straightforward alt-rockers (I Want the One I Can’t Have, What She Said), to rockabilly (Rushholme Ruffians, Nowhere Fast), to straight up balladry (That Jokes Isn’t Funny Anymore, Well I Wonder) and even a bit of funk flair (Barbarism Begins at Home). Plus, there are lots of the little tidbit oddities that I love to discover in music, and which can really make a song jump from good to great or great to brilliant, all over the place on this album. Two examples (bulleted again, for my amusement):

• During and after the chorus of Nowhere Fast, the guitar is chiming along, a minor, melancholy little run that perfectly compliments the lyrics (“And when a train goes by, it’s such a sad sound…”), followed by a forlorn little two-note slide, almost like a sigh. Brilliance. I find myself thinking about that little section a lot and wondering how awesome Johnny thought he was for coming up with it and wishing I could figure out a way to rip it off myself without being obvious. Ah well, I probably couldn’t play it properly anyway…
• And again, the title track, a very ominous tune, the true anthem of vegetarianism; halfway through the second verse, at the 3:18 mark, the drums accent a most foreboding line (“It’s not comforting, cheery or kind…the meat in your mouth as you savor the flavor of murder”) with a very loud and obvious fill across the toms, which is off putting not only in the context of the music (for those of us who like our fills to come in the right places), but also in the overall unease of the song’s theme -- the consumption of flesh.

And, of course, there’s a lot of jangle here (so much of the music I love has jangle to it), something that always denotes a good time, but not without a sense of attack, a certain menace that sets the tone for what Morrissey is clearing his throat to tell us about.

So let’s touch on that a bit. Moz really has a lot to say here. From the brutality of the British school system, to the aimless, shiftless nowhere-to-go state facing society and particularly young people, to child abuse and forlorn loves and disconnection from people and, of course, the meat industry. And he’s not just saying “this sucks” because it does, he’s giving us the grit, as in opener The Headmaster Ritual (a rather menacing title that is never used in the song itself), his young boy character complains of a schoolmate who “grabs and devours” and “kicks me in the showers,” as well as “bruises bigger than dinner plates,” and constantly laments his desire to go home. Or, in Nowhere Fast, his comment to the monarchy staying suspicious and aloof of the commoners, as the queen thinks them “selfish and greedy,” purposefully keeping them down and in a backward age. And on the less political-social level, within the confines of disenchanted youth, What She Said is “How come someone hasn't noticed that I'm dead and decided to bury me, God knows, I'm ready.” And I couldn’t allow myself to mention this album without giving a shout out to quite possibly my favorite Smiths song, the truly underrated and truly overlooked Well I Wonder, a very low key tune that sums up for me everything about being 15, clumsy and shy, and melodramatic in the infatuation of some silly girl, “Gasping, but somehow still alive. This is the fierce last stand of all I am.”

And some of this was not relevant in 1992 (some seven years after the album’s release) to a 19-year-old American college student, or now a 35-year-old white-collar worker, but the sentiment is there, the realization that all is not well with the way things are. And truly it never will be, but pointing out the fact is not enough, you have to make a change by making a difference -- don’t eat meat, don’t let the system consume you, don’t be a douche, whatever it takes. Right? Am I babbling here? Yes.

Honestly, to me overall, this is the quintessential Smiths album. Lyrically and musically, it all comes together here. Never were there more signature licks from Marr, never was Morrissey more observational and droll without being overly obscure, never were Rourke and Joyce put more to the test to keep a myriad of styles and textures in place for their often dueling duo of frontmen.

Meat is Murder is a rant and a wail, though sung in a croon, and Morrissey and Co are dire and full of ire and ready to start a fire (ha, ha) in the hearts of the youth of any generation and beneath the seats of all ruling parties. You’ll tap your feet to a good half the tunes here, but you’ll feel the tension, and that will make you look a little deeper and see that those bouncy guitars are just a fa├žade.

Purchase this album here…

And since the Smiths never did many videos, here’s a live clip of Nowhere Fast…

And a fan vid of Well I Wonder, which was never played live…

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