Thirty years ago, The Smiths released their best studio album The Queen is Dead. I’m sure plenty of people have a different favorite Smiths album, but most will probably agree that this was their peak in the album format. Except for the actual Smiths, that is, who prefer its 1987 follow-up Strangeways, Here We Come.
But in the band’s defense, at least with Strangeways, they collected most of the strongest singles the band released in 1987. In the months following The Queen is Dead, the band released the singles “Panic” and “Ask”. The songs are major entries in their catalog, but they were recorded months after the album, so it’s not surprising that they were excluded from the album; They were later collected on The World Won’t Listen (among many other Smiths compilations).
At the same time, the singles actually released from the album didn’t fare much better. “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” was a solid choice for the first single, but when it later came time to pick the follow-up, Rough Trade labelhead Geoff Travis wanted to release “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” while guitarist Johnny Marr preferred “Bigmouth Strikes Again.” They went with the latter, but the former is the one track from The Queen is Dead (and possibly The Smiths’ entire discography) that has been most canonized. It was finally released as a single in 1992, years after the band had broken up.
So what we have is an album that doesn’t feature the most notable singles The Smiths released in 1986, made the wrong choice of cuts to release as singles and nevertheless would up being a masterpiece. The Smiths in ‘86 were akin to The Beatles in ‘66.
For a band that mostly put out inconsistent LPs, The Queen is Dead somehow does everything right. For one, it’s sequenced wonderfully. The record opens with the longest cut (“The Queen is Dead”) and placing “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” near the end, allowing the album to build to the highlight. On top of that, there’s the songs themselves, which are often aided by thematic similarities. Much of the album deals with feeling trapped, attempting to find freedom from that which is withholding you, be it your country, your record label, your home or your own big mouth. “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” with its gothic love story lyrics, finds freedom in love and in death. In doing so, it makes you wonder whether the two are all that different. “To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die,” Morrissey sings, a lovely sentiment, even if many may read it as “To die is heavenly.” (The hope in Morrissey’s lyricism is too often forgotten.)
With all of these strengths, The Queen is Dead manages to be tight without seeming too measured. The Smiths made making great pop sound easy, but the album would be nothing without its sound. Whether somber (“I Know It’s Over”) or jangly (“Cemetry Gates”), the album sounds lovely throughout, and while every Smiths album will have some filler, it’s less notable when it sustains a strong sound. You may never need to hear “Vicar in a Tutu” again, but it’s not unpleasant to listen to.
Because of their strength as a singles band, compilations are the most enjoyable way to hear The Smiths. You will likely reach for Hatful of Hollow or The Sound of The Smiths when you want to listen to them casually. But with The Queen is Dead, they managed to compile an album that captured them about as well. They broke up just a year (and one more album) later, leaving with a that could grow in the decades to come.