The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead (1986)
Welcome back to YDCS! I had to take a few weeks off to move house, but now that I’m settled, we should be back at the reviews for the long haul! This week we’re listening to a quintessential album from the 1980s that helped define the sound of the era, The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths. Fronted by Morrissey, The Smiths were the original indie rock band, casting away the synthesizers that were so popular in the mid-80s and focusing on honing a tight sound with only guitars, drums, breathtaking vocals, and creative wit in their lyrics. The Queen Is Dead is a continuation of the same sound that The Smiths established on their earlier albums Meat is Murder and their self-titled debut but shows more refinement than before. This album drips with a slow, moody atmosphere that brings out every emotion from elation to despair.
I’ve wanted to review The Queen Is Dead for a long time, but had never gotten around to it because I wasn’t sure how to go about it. Not only is it often cited as one of the best albums ever released, it’s also not a traditional rock album and trends closer to a folk rock sound than a hard rock sound. It shows the wide range of sounds that you find across the genre, as we’ve seen with groups as diverse as the Sex Pistols, Steely Dan, Duran Duran, and now The Smiths. The Queen Is Dead is an outstanding album, and I’ve rated every song on it highly for a few reasons: First, Morrissey’s vocal performance is enough to carry the album even without the rest of the band. He runs through every track with such precision that it’s difficult to pay attention to anything else, lyrics and backing instrumentation included. That’s critically important because The Smiths were a lyric group, and you’ll need to listen to each song a few times to get the most out of the album. If you’ve never listened to The Smiths before, either because you don’t like their music or you’ve never had the chance, then this is the best place for you to start. I hope you enjoy the album!
Dad’s Thoughts- The Breakdown
The Queen Is Dead: Wow. It’s not often that a song has so much hidden meaning that I need to look up the lyrics and read them to get a handle on the song (It could also have to do with the fact that I’m an American listening to a song protesting the British monarchy…). Politically, this was a major song calling out the British monarchy, Prince Charles’ role riding his mother’s (Queen Elizabeth II) coattails for his life, and calling out royal watchers for not prioritizing other things in society (ie. Increasing drug usage among young people) over the royals. I’m not going to say anything regarding the validity or invalidity of the argument as we aim to be apolitical here on YDCS, but in terms of significance, this rivals the Sex Pistol’s “God Save the Queen” for its lambasting of the monarchy. Dad’s Rating 9/10
Frankly, Mr. Shankly: “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” is the least impressive song on the album in my opinion. It discusses the decline of fame as one grows older, which ties nicely with the theme found in “The Queen Is Dead,” while not being overbearing and beating on the same point too much. Musically, this song is forgetful and one of the least remarkable on the album, mostly because this record has too many songs that stand leagues ahead. Dad’s Rating 5/10
I Know It’s Over: I know that The Smiths were ballad-heavy, and this is the first song on The Queen is Dead where we really see that clearly. We all know that I normally dislike ballads, but there’s something about The Smiths that actually makes me listen closer to ballads. I think it has to do with Morrissey’s beautiful vocals. Many acts lack the chops to do a proper ballad any justice, but if there’s one person who can do it, it’s Morrissey. Having said that, this one is just okay in my book, but only because I prefer the song that follows “I Know It’s Over” even more. There’s nothing to fault in the performance, but everything comes together so cleanly on the following track that it makes this one forgettable. Now, if you’re listening to this song in album format then you won’t be disappointed with the performance, but I wouldn’t elect to put the single on a playlist. Dad’s Rating 6/10
Never Had No One Ever: “Never Had No One Ever” might be my favorite song on the entire album. I love how moody it is and how the heavy bass and minor key play beautifully into the wailing vocals. “I’m alone and I never had no one ever.” How about that for lyrics?! This song is so sad and really made me feel the same, but at the same time it’s so beautiful that I couldn’t take it off repeat. The Smiths are often described as one of the original “emo bands,” and songs like this are the reason why. There’s so much raw emotion that you can feel the pain in the vocals. Musically, this is a fantastic execution and job well done. Dad’s Rating 10/10
Cemetry Gates: We go from the lowest low possible to a high high with “Cemetry Gates.” This is a fun track that reminisces about the lives about people that have died with a literary undertone (listen for the references to Keith, Yates, Wilde, and Shakespeare in this song!). This is a great tongue-in-cheek song that shows perfectly the sarcasm that The Smiths were known for and eve more-so, their creative songwriting ability. Dad’s Rating 7/10
Bigmouth Strikes Again: “Bigmouth Strikes Again” features my favorite instrumental section and production on the album. The guitar solos are really outstanding on this track, and it’s one of few considering that The Smiths eschewed big solos on their songs. Instrumentally, this is the strongest song on the album and shows a completely different side of the band than earlier tracks like “Never Had No One Ever.” I also really like how they added a second version of Morrissey’s vocals pitched up through the chorus too. That’s a great production tool that gives the song a new level of depth and a haunting quality, despite the fact that it’s an up-tempo song. Really good one here! Dad’s Rating 8/10
The Boy with the Thorn in His Side: I had to skip over “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” a few times because I wasn’t sure what to say about it. It’s sandwiched between two really good songs, but it’s not a bad song in its own right. My biggest issue with this track is that it’s too darn repetitive. I feel like every time I heard it, the only thing I heard was ‘the boy with the thorn in his side’ over and over again. Morrissey claims that the song is about the music industry, and knowing the amount of metaphor across the rest of the album, I think it would be remiss to judge this song at face value. Dad’s Rating 5/10
Vicar in a Tutu: “Vicar in a Tutu” doesn’t match the rest of the album in musical style, but explaining their anti-religious and pro-individuality sentiments through the instrument of a vicar wearing a tutu is a pretty strong image. I’ll give kudos for being bold enough to write a song as tongue-in-cheek as this, but also knock it down a peg for its plain musical arrangement. Dad’s Rating 6/10
There Is a Light That Never Goes Out: This is a CLASSIC! “To die by yoooour side, is such a heavenly way to diiiiie.” This is the first song that I think of when I think of The Smiths, and for good reason too. It’s not spectacular musically, and it’s not my favorite vocal performance on the album either, but it’s a painful story, told beautifully, with exceptionally clean arrangement. There is literally nothing to fault with this song. Every note is performed perfectly, it’s mixed perfectly, and I think it’s a great testament to the hardworking attitude and strong technical abilities of the band. Dad’s Rating 10/10
Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others: I thought my headphones were broken at first when I listened to this song! That is one of the coolest introductions to a song that I’ve ever heard. “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” is exactly the closer from The Smiths that you would expect. It subverts your expectations by actually talking about dreams, expectations, and legacies but referencing weight. Musically I enjoyed this song too. It has a strong new wave influence that was notably absent from the rest of the album and made for an interesting closing song. It’s not often that a song with a completely different style from the rest of the album can close, but by incorporating the witty lyricism that the band was known for turns out to be a strong running theme and helps this song out. Job well done! Dad’s Rating 8/10
The opinion above is protected under the Fair Use provision of United States Copyright Law, 17 U.S.C §107 which allows for the fair use of a copyrighted work for criticism without infringement on the copyright.