The Smiths
The Sound of the Smiths

Courtesy of Virgin

4 out of 5 stars

By now, conventional wisdom would suggest that any new Smiths compilation is utterly superfluous and destined for failure. The band was only around for five short years between 1982 and 1987. In that time, it released three compilations, two of which are now seen as crucial components of its discography. Following the band’s now-infamous demise, a staggering four more compilations were released.

From any standpoint, it’s obvious that the catalogue has been stretched dangerously thin. And so The Sound of The Smiths, their fifth and most recent posthumous compilation, rightfully faces an uphill battle for legitimacy. After all, who is this album intended for? Casual fans probably own one of the other best-ofs already, the dedicated certainly do, and newcomers might just end up even more confused on where to start listening to The Smiths.

But perhaps a better question would be, what is this album intended to do? If it’s meant to round out the faults of its predecessors, The Sound of The Smiths is surprisingly successful. Unlike the previous “Best of” releases, its track order is a largely chronological and wholly sensible overview of the highpoints in The Smiths’s career. But unlike 1995’s Singles, The Sound of The Smiths doesn’t limit itself to just the hits. With a 23-track second disc, sold as part of the “deluxe set,” the album delves freely into the band’s rarities and hefty back-catalogue.

Much of what’s good about The Sound is probably due to the involvement of vocalist Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr. This is the first compilation since the band’s best-of in which the band’s creative masterminds had an active hand, and it shows. Between “Hand in Glove” and “Jeane,” the track selection gives the uninitiated all they need to fall in love with the band. Marr’s guitar work, of course, is a big factor. Over The Smiths’s short but productive career, he touched on everything from African highlife (“This Charming Man”) to heavy-metal-esque guitar solos (“Shoplifters of the World Unite”). His success in adopting ’60s jangle-pop to a post-punk aesthetic deserves an article of its own.

But the compilation also showcases the other half of The Smiths’s formula: Morrissey’s captivating lyrical wit. Tracks like “Handsome Devil” (“A boy in the bush / is worth two in the hand”) perfectly illustrate how he twisted and contorted the energy of punk until it fit his eccentric, introverted and sexually ambiguous persona. Admittedly, it can often be hard to tell where Morrissey’s sincerity ends and comical self-parody begins — a problem that’s given The Smiths an unfortunate reputation as proto-emo. But even on his more subpar efforts, Morrissey hits notes of both humor and raw honesty that his supposed followers could never reach. Fallout Boy’s Patrick Stump would do well to listen to The Sound and contemplate retirement.

The second CD, sold as part of the “deluxe set,” offers a number of intriguing B-sides and live tracks. Among the more notable is a live version of “Meat is Murder,” on which Morrissey’s strained vocals make a more compelling case than they do on the studio cut. For those who are well acquainted with “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side,” these lesser-known gems will be the most intriguing aspect of The Sound.

As with any compilation, it’s possible to nitpick about questionable inclusions (“Money Changes Everything”) and conspicuous omissions (“I Know It’s Over”). It’s debatable whether the album ultimately justifies its own existence, but it seems to more than most of the band’s previous compilations.

The Sound of The Smiths gathers up all of The Smiths that most people will need. It also does it at a price equal to three of the band’s original studio albums at a used record store. It’s an excellent summary of a legendary band, and those new to The Smiths can’t go wrong in taking a listen — but they could do even better with The Queen is Dead.

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