Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now.
Anniversary Records: The Smiths – Meat Is Murder
by Chad Jewett
Meat Is Murder has long occupied an uncertain place in The Smiths’ discography. An archetypically “difficult” sophomore LP, the album’s opaque moodiness and sharper edge can’t be explained away as growing pains the way the less typical moments of the band’s self-titled debut can. Nor can the chilly tension of Meat Is Murder — which celebrates a thirtieth anniversary this month — be easily plotted on some trajectory of the band’s output, released as it was between the upbeat (despite its title) “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and the crisp chiming of “Bigmouth Strikes Again.” Every Smiths LP is wry and ironic and biting, but Meat Is Murder doesn’t leaven that venom with playfulness, as the band would on their 1986 masterpiece The Queen Is Dead (which balanced arch glumness and witty humor perfectly). Nor did the band retro-fit their sting into outsized pop marvels the way they would on their final full-length, 1987’s Strangeways, Here We Come. Unlike the rest of The Smiths’ ouevre, Meat Is Murder feels like a monolith, dense, bitter, and angry.
Like The Beatles in the 60s and The Clash in the 70s, The Smiths had parallel lives as both an album band and a singles band, capable of crafting a consistent hour-long mood and a three-minute burst with equal alacrity. If The Queen Is Dead is the band’s best album proper, singles collections like Louder Than Bombs are exquisite and essential in their own right, like The Clash’s airtight Black Market Clash a decade earlier. Maybe Meat Is Murder feels intangibly apart from the rest of The Smiths’ major releases because it’s the one album that doesn’t combine those skills of longform aura and shortform release. It’s not interested in hits, or even really in melodies — though those do show up, albeit frequently wreathed in razor wire. Even the tuneful “The Headmaster Ritual”, which features a characteristically catching melody from Morrissey is offset by a sharper-than usual guitar, and bass that snaps and lashes.
That Meat Is Murder sets a mood – one of livid defiance and steely post-punk – is undeniable. But unlike the band’s other three full-lengths, that mood arrives like a solid, impenetrable block of ice. Nothing on Meat Is Murder sounds like a single. Instead, the whole album feels like a single nervy, caustic statement. It is also the closest the band gets to honest-to-god punk, with songs like the stark, sinewy “I Want The One I Can’t Have” and the rumbling, serrated “What She Said” moving in quick, punchy minor-key bursts. Even at its slowest and most moody, as on the lovesick “Well I Wonder”, Meat Is Murder seems to snarl. Elsewhere, on “Rusholme Ruffians” and “Nowhere Fast”, the album gleans rough-hewn romanticism from rockabilly, the songs’ nimble, rustling beats offering the only passages of relative lightness in an album that is mostly grim and furious and more given either to the metallic angularity of “Barbarism Begins At Home” or the gloaming melancholy of “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” (itself released, somewhat unsuccessfully, as a single, despite its uncharacteristically aimless melody).
Curiously, Meat Is Murder was The Smiths’ only number one record in the U.K., and it’s tempting to chalk that up to how well the album conveys the unease of Thatcher’s England and the era’s specific brand of ugly conservatism that Morrissey would continue to rail against, even as his own critiques could occasionally border on the xenophobic or the weirdly nationalistic. Meat Is Murder is largely concerned with authority, with how the strong prey upon the weak, whether it be corporal punishment in school (“The Headmaster Ritual”), a more general sense of draconian disciplinary pressure on youth (“Barbarism Begins At Home”), or most memorably, the cruelty that lies at the heart of the meat industry (“Meat Is Murder”).
Indeed, the sensational (but, frankly, realistic) way the album’s title track deals with the nightmare that is factory farming for animals has had a very real influence on Meat Is Murder’s oddly mixed reputation. Some fans refused to engage with “Meat Is Murder”, which layers the song’s intro and outro with the ghoulish sounds of slaughterhouse machinery and the bleats of suffering animals. Considering the increasing distance that the developed world has put between itself and the preparation of its food (a distance that has led to meat taking up more and more of our daily diets), it seems fair for Morrissey to ask, pointedly but reasonably, “Do you know how animals die?” – especially since for many, the answer is “no”. At worst, “Meat Is Murder” seems to often get met with the same callous eye-rolls with which vegetarianism and animal rights activism often contends, which is a shame on all counts.
Ultimately, what makes Meat Is Murder singular in the collected works of The Smiths is also what makes it an idiosyncratically pleasurable listen. You can still hear the LP’s influence, perhaps more than any other Smiths release. Certainly it reverberates in the fraught, anxious volatility of Brand New’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, or the simultaneously kinetic and sullen The Things We Think We’re Missing by Balance and Compsure. There’s a certain sort of catharsis in the way the album boils over, in the way that Morrissey and Johnny Marr seem to suddenly decide that, quite literally, the joke isn’t funny anymore. Where The Queen Is Dead would go on to set its critiques and satires in the context of eccentric characters and soapy melodrama – making it a vividly fun world to inhabit for forty minutes – Meat Is Murder remains incredibly gripping for all the ways it dispenses with that superstructure of archness and irony. Meat Is Murder fights for a sound and a set of narratives as intense and electric as anything the band would produce: sharp, bracing, and impossible to ignore.