Why The Smiths Resonate
The early ‘90s Morrissey/Robert Smith spats were legendary, but they never penetrated my life enough for me to have an opinion or side with either one of two men whose music and lyrics I loved. But as time has gone by, The Smiths’s music has remained with me as a constant companion. I sing the songs as I go about my daily business; I listen to the albums while I write. I feel every bit as strongly about “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” — perhaps even more strongly — as I did when I first heard it when I was fifteen. The Cure, on the other hand, I turn to when I want to evoke nostalgia or a specific mood that is nevertheless somewhat fuzzy. This difference, I think, stems from the sophistication of The Smiths’ music and lyrics — and from how “sophisticated” seems like a strange adjective to describe The Smiths but is resoundingly true.
Peak Cure has a wash of sound — chimes and synths and churning guitars and a bass line that sounds like it’s reverberating through water. Robert Smith’s voice is slurred, wavering. The Smiths music is spare in comparison — a piano perhaps, a sound effect, but mostly clear, jangling guitar, bass, and drums. And Morrissey — his baritone, a bit muppety, yes, but also the voice of a crooner, of someone who wants his words to be understood.
Lyrically, Bob writes about fantasy scenarios, narratives about oceans and dancing and love you drown in: "The walking through walls in the heart of December, the blindness of happiness, of falling down laughing.” And the music always mirrors the words. You’re in an imaginary space when you listen to The Cure, every part of the artifice meticulously detailed.
But Moz’s lyrics have an essential component that Bob’s lack: reality in all its contrasts, the mundanity of embarrassment, ambivalence, and outright paralyzing fear: "She wants it now, and she will not wait, but she's too rough and I'm too delicate." The element of self-deprecation is all over The Smiths lyrically. “I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar it meant that you were a protest singer. I can smile about it now, but at the time it was terrible!" “Sixteen, clumsy, and shy — that’s the story of my life."
More sophisticated, too, is the juxtaposition of the mood and content of the lyrics with music. This isn’t always the case, but “I Don’t Owe You Anything” is a good example. Morrissey’s romantic croon and Johnny’s gentle guitar undercut the undercurrent of manipulation and abuse in the lyrics: "Bought on stolen wine, a nod was the first step. You knew very well what was coming next." That is the sentiment of a date rapist — “I know what will make you smile tonight” becomes sinister, a threat rather than a promise. But we feel that though Moz wrote these words, they are not his thoughts — they are those of a type of person he is interrogating through the words. There are a lot of these characters: the single father (“The Hand that Rocks the Cradle”), the mixed-up skinhead (“Still Ill”), the boisterous public school lad (“Vicar in a Tutu”). But there are also songs where you’re sure Moz is — somewhat abashedly — baring his soul.
And I think it’s this — the complexity that lies beneath a seemingly simple surface (you try playing those guitar parts Johnny Marr makes sound effortless!), the unflinching examination of human emotion and behavior — that has made The Smiths stay with me, the perpetual soundtrack of my life, while The Cure is firmly rooted in a particular time.