Meat Is Murder was the dreaded sophomore album for The Smiths, a band that had hit the ground running with their first, self-titled album. The title is about as stark as it gets, accompanied by a grainy picture of an American soldier in Vietnam. This is a kind of statement of purpose, to let you know that this is going to be some hard-hitting stuff. And it is, from the slaughter of animals to child abuse. The first song, the masterful "Headmaster Ritual," sets the tone. It hits hard with one of Johnny Marr's best churning riffs getting things off to a rolling start before Morrissey intones a perfect Morrissey line: "Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools." It's an indictment of abusive and authoritarian educators, one that's always resonated with me after surviving a hellish kindergarten. It sets the tone for the album, one that concerns itself with inhumanity, cruelty, and abuse. Musically it seems to perfectly integrate all the band's elements into an almost seamless whole.
The next song, "Rusholme Ruffians," is one of my favorite Smiths deep tracks. It has a certain rockabilly swing to it, unlike almost any other Smiths songs, and some incidental noise to evoke the mood of the local fair that it describes. It reminds me of that elegiac feeling of the end of summer, of going out at night but needing to wear a jacket, aware of the hint of winter in the evening chill. It's followed by "I Want The One I Can't Have," a typical Morrissey unrequited love lament. I was a very romantic teenager with a complete inability to speak to the opposite sex, which of course meant listening to the Smiths was love at first hearing, because of songs like this. I made my pathetic secret crushes grandiose by imagining them sung in Morrissey's high voice. While this type of song would be made too many times by this band, this time around the approach is pretty fresh.
"What She Said" is less romantic and almost claustrophobic. It's fast and dirty, and finds the semblance of a groove, rare for a Smiths song. It's also a song that shows the importance of track listings on albums, a lost art in this age of playlists. So far side one has gotten faster and faster, and this song even seems to come close to classic punk territory. It ends abruptly, and throws the listener into the languid, slow burn of "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore." This song is a real stunner. It starts beautifully with a little acoustic guitar figure, Morrissey sings "At the car at the side of the road" then the drums and bass come in as he finishes his thought with "Time's tide will smother you/ And I will too." Marr goes from riffing to some gorgeous, feedback-laden moods in the background over a tight little groove by Joyce and Rourke. It is hard for me to listen to this song with any objective remove, since I associate it very strongly with a particular person in my past life. We were once inseparable friends, and while in Chicago would often frequent a bar with a CD jukebox (remember those?) that had a Smiths compilation on it. Almost every time we went to the bar one of us would play this song, and we would sing along together. Even when time's tide sent me to downstate Illinois and her to Toronto, we maintained our friendship, up until a sad falling out five years ago. We haven't talked since, and hearing this song will always remind me of a once beautiful friendship that went sour, appropriate for the theme of this song.
"That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" is probably my second favorite Smiths song. My favorite? Without a doubt, it's "How Soon Is Now," the next song on the album. That might sound cliched, but things get cliched for a reason. (And yes, I am aware that this song wasn't on the UK version of the album, but I've only ever listened to the US one.) Swirling reverby guitar, big beat, and "I am the son and heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar," perhaps the most Morrissey line that ever Morrissey-ed. The dance-y beat is atypical for the band, but it really works. When Marr's crystalline guitar backs Morrisey's "I am human and I need to be loved/ Just like everyone else does" I am immediately transported back to my adolescence. This song is adolescent longing personified, in all its silly grandiosity and self-pity. I have been listening to it for well over twenty years and ever time it still completely grabs me and won't let go.
It's hard to top that, and the rest of the album doesn't really try. "Nowhere Fast" revives the rockabilly feel with a clickety clack I'm used to hearing from Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. This song is a sign that side two of the album is going to be more political, as Morrissey takes the persona of a stuffed shirt incapable of expressing a "natural emotion" who wants to drop his "trousers to the queen." Cheeky! "Well I Wonder" goes back into melancholia, with some Morrissey crooning and mooning over unrequited love. Andy Rourke's bass, strong on the whole album, sounds especially good here.
The album ends with two long, more political songs. "Barbarism Begins At Home" has a funky groove to it, a kind of goth disco. It concerns domestic violence against children, but the message is blunted by the music, which doesn't quite fit. Marr's guitar sound is pretty interesting, though. Last and certainly least comes "Meat Is Murder." I've got no problem with vegetarianism, but direct political songs are so often clumsy and ham-fisted (excuse the metaphor) and this song is a case in point. The music is unformed and plodding, meant to evoke a funeral march, but it just doesn't connect.
But hey, I just don't bother listing to the last two songs on the album when I put it on, which vastly improves the experience. The Smiths might not have had quite enough good songs to make a flawless album, but they were smart enough to put the weakest ones last. And in any case those songs are a small price to pay for the amazing likes of "Headmaster Ritual," "How Soon Is Now," and "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore," songs I expect I will listen to until the day I die, far far removed from an adolescence that they evoke so well.