Smiths / The Go-Betweens
Barney Hoskyns New Musical Express
Two strangely jarring acts from Rough Trade, one increasingly abstruse, t'other ever more open, engaging.
I have a hard time with the Go-Betweens. They fascinate me because there's something missing in them and I don't know what it is. It's as if they write sweet songs, Postcard ditties, then impale them to the ground with lead stakes. Instead of flowing, the songs writhe under dead beats.
They've been compared to the Band, which is valid only insofar as this isn't rock music. Stray "rock" elements say, Television, Talking Heads, Alex Chilton are shrunk into peculiarly prosaic pain, then hardened by stark, brittle guitars which coldly stitch the edge of beats. The new twin guitar play is an important extension, Grant McLennan now spiking the offbeats while Robert Forster strips off flakes of Verlaine, but opening up the sound hasn't breathed new fire to its lungs.
Partly the problem is their bedsit bookishness, an allusive literary shell from which little seems to protrude. Their "fast ballads" don't burst through, don't hit the ear, but seem lost in domestic cubbyholes, stumped pleadings, circuitous poetics. Few Go-Betweens affairs come off with the majestic firmness of As Long As That; the newest songs, like Unkind and Unwise and Newton Told Me, make them more inscrutable than ever.
That said, It Could Be Anyone and A Bad Debt Follows were tremendous as live excursions. Lindy Morrison's drumming remains great in the way that Levon Helm or Charlie Watts are great; precise, quirky, inventive. But because the Go-Betweens so consciously, so demonstratively decline to pull on the heartstrings and write clear melodies, they leave us with something crabby and colourless, a bleak beauty torn by doubt. Dark lighting and malfunctioning monitors didn't help.
What the Go-Betweens lack is bounce (a wave, a curl ...), as in the Smiths' bouncy, Nightingales-ish opening of Handsome Devil. The Smiths are saucy. Morrissey may just be another fruitcake in the tradition of Harley, Cope, Rowland, but Hand in Glove is one of the year's few masterpieces, a thing of beauty and joy forever. To say that all other Smiths songs are grafted from this splendid stalk only testifies to its perfection.
Jeans hanging off his ass, beads around his neck, Morrissey brandishes his flowers like a new sign of Gabba Gabba Hey. I dunno if the sun shines down from his behind, but he keeps sticking it in the air anyway. He's compulsively watchable, compulsively listenable too. If first impressions are ones of provincial punk-folk, there's a wavering sadness in this monkish maverick's larynx which calls to mind Tim Buckley or the great folk purists. Every song is put to an idealised "you", a genderless receptacle of love. Does the mind rule the body or does the body rule the mind? I dunno. These loose, crisp songs, fired by the alternately churning and sparkling Rickenbacker of Johnny Marr, are injected with the ascetic lust of Genet.
What is refreshing about the Smiths is that they're not stylised by any period. Their music has a new flow, a real body and life. When It's Not Time suddenly accelerates to a frantic canter, you're swept up by Morrissey's falsetto and left spellbound. When he sings Reel Around the Fountain, his voice trembles and bleeds. As David Dorrell wrote last week, Morrissey and Marr could just be penning the best love songs since the Buzzcocks.
The Smiths are Rough Trade's most commercial offering yet, deserving successors to Scritti and Camera. By the encore of Accept Yourself, they have two dozen teensies gyrating onstage, swimming in flowers. It's ridiculous and wonderful. Let Morrissey molest you too.