The Smiths’ ‘Queen Is Dead’ a tour de force, then and now
On Aug. 5, 1986, the Smiths took the stage at Great Woods (now the Xfinity Center) in Mansfield for the first date of a US tour. That a British indie band could play such a large venue stateside spoke volumes about the word-of-mouth evangelizing and cultish devotion their music inspired; the ecstatic screams that greeted the iconic opening chords of “How Soon Is Now?” were positively Beatles-esque in fervor. It didn’t hurt that, two months earlier, the Smiths had released one of the decade’s best albums.
That Mansfield concert is featured on “The Queen Is Dead (Deluxe Edition),” a reissue of The Smiths’ third record, released 31 years after the original. It may not be, as the NME crowned it in 2013, the greatest album of all time, but it is a tour de force, far more dynamic and multifaceted than the sad-boy caricature to which the group has been reduced in the public imagination. There’s melancholy enough, sure (if Morrissey is The Pope of Mope, then “I Know It’s Over” and “Never Had No One Ever” are his papal decrees), but there’s also humor, anger, and pure, unbridled joy — often within the same song.
Though Morrissey’s arch lyricism and Johnny Marr’s revolutionary guitar tend to get all the attention, the band’s eternally underrated rhythm section is just as crucial to the sound of “The Queen Is Dead.” Andy Rourke’s burbling, melodic bass lines perfectly complement Marr’s every jangly strum and sparkling arpeggio, while Mike Joyce’s lightning-fast drum rolls give a shot of punk adrenaline to the title track and “Bigmouth Strikes Again.” Also underrated is the Smiths’ social conscience, an element frequently missed by the countless imitators who only had ears for the band’s lovelorn laments. Hearing Morrissey’s pointed critiques of the monarchy on the title track, not to mention his casual dismissal of gender norms on the sneakily subversive “Vicar in a Tutu,” you’re left wondering how the quasi-xenophobic crank who calls himself Morrissey in 2017 can possibly be the same person.
In addition to a new remaster of the original album, “The Queen Is Dead (Deluxe Edition)” contains a disc of demos and B-sides, as well as a disc with most of the aforementioned Great Woods concert. The demo disc’s value is primarily musicological: stripped of Marr’s lush arrangements, even the most classic songs sound thin and unremarkable, while there’s no way the completists this collection is aimed at don’t already own the four B-sides included here. The only demo that merits multiple listens is “Never Had No One Ever,” if only for the incongruous horn solo and the unexplored musical possibilities it suggests. The live disc also proves redundant, since little beyond Morrissey’s gleefully theatrical trilling and snarling distinguishes the performances from their studio counterparts. Not that it really matters: After all, the Beatles never made a great live album either.
What’s most extraordinary about “The Queen Is Dead” is how it translates the very specific interests of its creators into the universal adolescent grammar of longing, self-discovery, and the blessed reverie of losing oneself in music. Decisively unmodern yet not quite retro, “The Queen Is Dead” sounds every bit as ineffably marvelous now as it must have in 1986, and this reissue is as good an excuse as any to let it charm us all over again.