Three decades removed from the breakup of The Smiths, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong. Countless books and thinkpieces have been written about this fiercely original U.K. guitar band, and yet tracing the rift between singer Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr can be like figuring out what caused World War I or the financial crisis. Only it’s The Smiths, so this is serious.
Fans seeking clarity in Morrissey and Marr’s somewhat recent memoirs are bound to be disappointed. The onetime musical soulmates offer differing accounts of the group’s demise, neither especially enlightening. One thing Moz and Marr seem keener to discuss is Strangeways, Here We Come, the group’s posthumous final studio album.
Released 30 years ago this week, on Sept. 28, 1987, Strangeways represents for both artists one final bright spot in the Smiths story. In his 2013 book Autobiography, Morrissey calls it a “masterpiece, with everything in its perfect place.” Marr isn’t quite so effusive in 2016’s Set the Boy Free—a markedly less spirited book than his old companion’s—but his descriptions of the album suggest he feels likewise.?
Their affection for Strangeways is curious given its accepted place in The Smiths’ canon. The consensus pick for the group’s finest hour is 1986’s The Queen Is Dead, though it’s easy to ride for the riotous outsider rockabilly romps of 1985’s Meat Is Murder and the pure expressions of fully formed Smiths-ness found on 1984’s self-titled debut. Strangeways is the Smiths at their least jangly and stereotypically Smiths-like, and that’s what Morrissey and Marr like about it.
“Every combination of chords has been done, but Johnny somehow manages the most imaginative bursts of sound on these final sessions, and the three other Smiths follow,” writes Morrissey in Autobiography. In Set the Boy Free, Marr recalls going into the sessions with an “agenda to use fewer overdubs and not fill up tall the space in the sound.” He also arrived at the Wool Hall studios in Bath, England, with a “new confidence” and “desire to shake things up.”
Confidence is something Marr never seemed to lack. As Set the Boy Free illustrates, he’s always approached things with very clear aesthetics in mind. On the second day he and Morrissey got together to work on music, before The Smiths even existed, Marr knew their first single would have silver writing on a navy-blue label, and that their debut album would be eponymously titled. For Strangeways, Marr envisioned opening the album with something radical: a song featuring all keyboards, no guitars. He achieved this with “A Rush and A Push and This Land Is Ours,” a striding dream-pop-ska oddity about reclaiming some lost part of yourself.
Morrissey devotes patches of Autobiography real estate to “Death of a Disco Dancer”—most notable for the rudimentary “Donnybrook punch-up” piano he himself plays on the track—and “Death at One’s Elbow,” a mad skiffle jam featuring rare backing vocals from Marr. Moz rates Marr’s voice a “honeyed flow,” despite Johnny’s insistence he couldn’t sing.
According to Marr, the “best moment” on Strangeways is “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me.” He recalls writing the song’s twinkling riff on the back of a tour bus during an especially lonely moment.
“I thought we’d reached a level of emotion that was as good as we ever needed to be,” Marr writes in Set the Boy Free, taking a rare stab at analyzing why The Smiths were so important to so many people. “The song epitomised everything that was unique about the band. It sounded like the drama of our lives.”
Morrissey must have sensed what Marr was feeling when he composed the music, because his lyrics for “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loves Me” come from the same desolate place that inspired “How Soon Is Now” and “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want.” Morrissey knows we’ve heard this one before—”The story is old, I know, but it goes on”—and yet that doesn’t stop him from delivering one of the disc’s finest vocals.
His other essential performance comes on the final track, “I Won’t Share You,” which gets a full paragraph in Autobiography. Morrissey is especially taken by Marr’s handiness with “a peculiar stringed instrument from 1777,” a contraption known to most as the autoharp.
“It is a fascinating moment when Johnny’s inner ear leads the way to somewhere unknown— somewhere mistrusted by all until the final depth of thought strikes,” Morrissey writes. “The technical term is bling.”
Some fans hear “I Won’t Share You” as a jealous Morrissey’s message to Marr in light of the guitarist’s extracurricular work with artists like Bryan Ferry. That interpretation ignores the part in the lyrics where Morrissey says it’s his own “drive and ambition” standing in the way of his relationship. This is a lovely little song about a man who’d rather be alone than sacrifice even the slightest bit of himself.
That conviction drove everything The Smiths did. It’s probably the reason they weren’t destined to last.