I’m loathe to do write-ups on compilation albums, but Louder Than Bombs is an exception for several reasons. For starters, this isn’t a greatest hits compilation culled from earlier records. Rather, it is a collection of non-album singles not previously released in LP format. Also, the first time I ever heard any of these songs was on this album. I came to The Smiths around the time they split up, and they didn’t get any Top 40 radio play in the U.S., so I hadn’t been exposed to any of these songs until I went to look for them. Finally, arguing in favor of revisiting a compilation, it’s just a damn good record.
Louder Than Bombs was released thirty years ago today on March 30, 1987. I probably first heard it in 1989, if I had to guess. I cannot think of a single other band regarding whom my views have changed more drastically over the course of my life; my whole relationship with their music can be summed up in a line from “Shakepeare’s Sister” (the song, not the band named for the song): “I can smile about it now / but at the time it was terrible…”
For me, hearing The Smiths for the first time was revelatory. I was a bummed out teenager and Morrissey‘s lyrics let me know that I wasn’t alone, that other people felt the way I did. It was – and still is – amazing to me that music has that ability to connect you to a world outside yourself. I delved into their music the way only a teenager with more time than money can; after all, if some of the lyrics seemed custom-tailored to my life and my situation, what could the other songs have to tell me? “Sheila Take A Bow” encouraged me to favor impulsiveness over conformity, love over achievement. “Girl Afraid” shed some light (but not enough) on how important communication is, since someone could be feeling the same thing I was and I’d never know it. “Ask” seemed like a suggestion to explore kinky sex… but then, I was 18 at the time, so that suggestion was both encouraging and welcome.
Of course, now, I listen to The Smiths and I’m just awed by Johnny Marr‘s guitar work. It’s incredible on just about every track. I’ve often said, in more recent years, that they’re really missing out on a market share by not releasing all of their albums in an instrumental format so that we could listen to the songs without having to listen to the lyrics. I know that Morrissey’s ego would never permit that, so it’s a moot point, but it doesn’t stop it from being a great idea. Now where did I leave that magic lamp?
See, because now I’m convinced that Morrissey was taking the piss the whole time. There’s no way, I think to myself, that he could have been serious when writing all those lyrics. I mean, they seemed serious to me when I was a serious young man, and so they made sense and I loved them and I loved him for writing those things down and singing them to the world. But as I’ve gotten older and learned that there’s joy everywhere and self-loathing is a game no one wins, I hear these lyrics differently. I don’t know if this comes off callous, but they make me laugh now because they’re so arch, so full of boring, blatant self-pity that it’s inconceivable to me that there wasn’t a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek involved with writing them. (And then there’s the counter-argument to this line of reasoning, which is that Morrissey, now in his fifties, is still singing this type of stuff – he just doesn’t have the amazing backing band he did in the 80s.) I mean, come on, the album ends with a suicide note. Seriously, people.
I’m not saying that the type of music they made doesn’t still have its place. Goodness knows there’s no shortage of disconnected, disaffected teenagers out there still. More than ever, I’d imagine. It’s just that the words to the songs no longer have a place for me except in the rearview mirror.
So, now this album comes up – or any album by The Smiths – and I smile and listen to Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke, and Mike Joyce tear the living hell out of their songs and I do my best to sort of “listen around” Morrissey’s ridiculous lyrics if I can’t come right out and laugh at them. Songs that used to make me nod my head and smirk in agreement with their self-serious candor now have me bobbing my head and smiling with nostalgia – you might not notice the difference if you’re standing there watching me, but I know the difference.