In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Now that we’re a few weeks into our new year’s resolutions, we’re featuring songs about giving up.
Here’s what a lot of people miss about The Smiths in general, and frontman Morrissey in particular: Their songs are funny. Not all of them, mind you. But even at the start, when the band sang the likes of “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” there was often an element of exaggeration that could be read as wit. It’s a difficult but rewarding trick, to record music that produces a genuine emotional response even while winking at the audience.
For anyone who doubted that The Smiths could be hilarious, the band’s third album The Queen Is Dead clarified the matter. The rage and righteousness of those earlier songs shifted ever so slightly into “snotty” on The Queen Is Dead’s title track and “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” joined by an unexpected air of whimsy on tracks like “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” and “Vicar In A Tutu.” Even the record’s most excessive expression of despondency—“Never Had No One Ever”—is so grandiose that it’s hard to read it as entirely straight-faced.
In an act of typically Smiths-ian perversity though, the band sequenced “Never Had No One Ever” immediately after another “sad bastard” ballad, “I Know It’s Over,” one of Morrissey and his co-composer Johnny Marr’s most magnificent and complex creations. For most of the track, Marr limits his electric guitar to a few softly chiming accents, as spare and elegant as the synthesized string arrangement that arises, sporadically, mid-song. Otherwise, the setting is plain. Marr strums his acoustic guitar quietly, while bassist Andy Rourke plays the closest thing “I Know It’s Over” has to a melody, and drummer Mike Joyce alternates between a simple tick-tock beat and little rhythmic flourishes. Meanwhile, Morrissey holds court. He opens with a hushed-but-urgent cry for help—“Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head”—and then spends the next five-plus minutes wallowing in self-pity, breaking down, in exacting detail, just why he’s so unlovable.
In Simon Goddard’s essential (for Smiths fans) Songs That Saved Your Life, the critic describes how Morrissey withheld his lyrics from his mates until the instrumental track had been entirely completed. Then Marr watched his partner step into the booth and deliver a vocal performance that was like a piece of intense theater, playing out in real time—full of surprising twists and bold moves. Especially remarkable is the song’s midsection, where the singer taunts himself, dismissing what he perceives as his best qualities—like being “entertaining” and “clever”—by asking, over and over, “Then why are you on your own tonight?” Goddard describes “I Know It’s Over” as one of Morrissey’s most challenging songs largely because of this passage, which he says forces those Smiths fans who identify with the singer’s world-weariness to “acknowledge their own base insecurities” and “resolute self-disgust.”
But for those same hardcore fans, “I Know It’s Over” is fascinating as a companion piece to The Queen Is Dead’s two other indispensable songs, “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side” and “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” One of the reasons why even critics who disliked The Smiths and Meat Is Murder jumped on-board with the third album is that all three of these songs reveal a subtle maturation, more beautifully melancholy than crushingly morose. They’re not funny—not even in a “everything’s so awful that you have to laugh” kind of way.
“I Know It’s Over” can be read as dangerously nihilistic—as the last words of someone on the brink of suicide. But in the context of the rest of The Smiths’ output, the song’s meaning is a lot richer. On the earlier albums, Morrissey’s moans of suffering were generally thick-lined: He was saying what what what was on his mind, but so bluntly that it bordered on cartoonish, with a little bit of distance. But there’s nothing at arm’s length about “I Know It’s Over.” When Morrissey sings, “It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate, it takes guts to be gentle and kind,” he’s not congratulating himself; he’s regretting what he believes he’ll never be. And no part of him is smiling.