During the album’s opening jingle jangle an echoing ghost’s voice comes into focus, as if narrowing in on a transmission from the past. Sent to tell us stories about history, customs, place, loss and love, something fresh in every catchy song, from the toe-tapping bitchiness of Unhappy Birthday, to Girlfriend In A Coma’s pop perfection ambivalence, to the soundscape sadness of Last Night I Dreamt Someone Loved Me, where a piano fronts the sound of a crowd from the miners’ strike. These are everyman songs to hum afterwards at the bus stop, in your council flat, walking to work or queuing for chips. We identify with the perspective. “Eighteen months’ hard labour” sings Morrissey – about Strangeways, or just the grinding boredom of doing a job you hate? I’m not too sure.
It’s an album of contrasts. Morrissey sings playfully, rolling sounds like a massage or a musing as his lyrics explore humanity with humour: but bitter irony often undercuts the positive words, just as word jokes soften the blow of the most downbeat ones. The album is full of references to love, that force of power and happiness: but that gets undercut by the idea that love is something we only get in dreams, because the reality is a series of false alarms and yearning for “the right one”. There’s always a loser left behind, saying goodbye to love.
Maybe you have to look at the deepest contrasts to find the strongest meanings. It’s easy to get sucked into the music’s clapping beats and guitar complexities yet there’s also an element of the circus or fairground to it, a surface appearance acting as a front for something else. A front for loss. A front for death, that darkness behind the glitter, that ever-present contrast to life and love.
We live in a world without love, peace or harmony, Morrissey tells us as Death Of A Disco Dancer’s yearning buildup evolves into awesome quasi-military drumwork blowouts. We all blow out one last time. There’s always Death At One’s Elbow. The kicker is that this song is like an upbeat Elvis on a train, enabling us to smile in the face of death. We can be strong, the music tells us. We’re in it together. After all, the album’s name is a nod to crammed Victorian prisons: people need to get along.
It ends with slow fade-out beauty, the echoes fading, The Smiths’ transmission over.
Extract from page 144 of 2000 Tunes: A History of Manchester Music by M. H. Rees; used with permission. Read the whole series (25 extracts) here; or my summary post. Readers might be interested in my forthcoming novel about a man obsessed with Manchester music - confusingly, it is also called 2000 Tunes!