Album: Meat Is Murder
Artist: The Smiths
Released: February 11th, 1985
Highlights: The Headmaster Ritual, Rusholme Ruffians, I Want the One I Can’t Have, Well I Wonder
Although it was not The Smith’s first record, and despite the fact it had been preceded by a strong album (the band’s self-titled debut), “Meat Is Murder” was quite revelatory to the general public. Like many musical works of the 80s, “The Smiths” had its good songwriting undermined by misguided production techniques: the group’s post-punk aggression – which was veiled by Morrissey’s drama and melody, and Marr’s otherworldly instrumental gift – came off as muffled; the band’s greatness shyly shinning through an overly reverberant soundscape that was not suiting for many of their edgier tunes. Conversely, “Meat Is Murder” marks the first time The Smith’s fantastic sound was successfully captured and translated onto a full-length piece of vinyl, and “The Headmaster Ritual”, which opens the album, is quick to announce that victory: traveling through quiet segments that, guided by Marr’s signature jangle, alternate between lamenting the tyranny of authoritarian teachers and rising to confront it, it culminates in an aggressive riff which serves as a chorus that propels the song forward and back to its verse.
And right there, inside that quiet-and-loud dichotomy whose two extreme spectra are perfectly captured, “Meat Is Murder” declares it contains both sides of The Smiths’ in an immaculate state; and both Morrissey and Marr find a way to rise to the occasion and amplify that quality by considerably polishing their songwriting. When they aim for the looser shade of their nature, The Smiths sound, at least in instrumental terms, as frantic as any punk group: what sets them apart, however, is the orchestral aura Marr’s guitars lend to the songs and Morrissey’s alternation between being tongue-in-cheek and tragic. In “What She Said”, as the group threatens to implode over a vicious circular guitar-and-drum pattern, Morrissey sings of a girl who is eager to meet an early death to escape her misery; meanwhile, in “I Want the One I Can’t Have” and “Nowhere Fast”, whose bouncy fast riffs beg for listeners to move, he – respectively – says that the poor can only find happiness in love and proclaims that, given the utter boredom of his life, he pines to shake it up by dropping his trousers in front of the Queen and exposing his slender means.
On the other hand, when they go for sheer misery, The Smiths sound ominous and disheartening. “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” echoes inside a wide space worthy of Joy Division while a haunting slide guitar looms over Morrissey’s sadness like a gliding vulture; and “Well I Wonder”, in which the singer ponders if the one who broke his heart can hear him cry at night and has any knowledge of his existence, is lifted into the air by the gorgeous acoustic strum of what sounds like an orchestra of guitars. Besides evolving, the group also moves forward by dabbling, with productive results, into unusual grounds: “Rusholme Ruffians” borrows from Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and uses rockabilly to describe a tragicomic British carnival; and “Barbarism Begins at Home” highlights the power of The Smiths’ rhythm section of Joyce and Rourke by taking a fantastic funk rock groove past the six-minute mark.
The final experimental piece of music that “Meat Is Murder” holds is the closing title track, which in spite of more than one minute of animal grunts and Morrissey’s overly self-righteous lyrics about vegetarianism, is positively sinister in its combination of a dark cyclical guitar and piano pairing, and bizarre sound effects on the track’s background. “Meat Is Murder” is, therefore, a record that is astoundingly consistent in its greatness, displaying considerable growth in terms of songwriting, sound, and variety, and catching one of the finest rock groups of all time close to its peak, which would come right afterwards.