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(Credit: Rough Trade)

Music

35 years ago, The Smiths forecast the end with 'The World Won't Listen'

@TylerGolsen
The Smiths - 'The World Won't Listen'
9.1

The title wasn’t meant as a joke. Despite gaining groundbreaking success for an indie act in their native UK, The Smiths were having trouble breaking through to the mainstream in foreign territories. Even at home, Morrissey felt that the band were viewed as niche. Despite his view that their music could be a catalyst for a revolution, Morrissey simply didn’t think that the world was paying enough attention to The Smiths.

Feelings of frustration are all over The World Won’t Listen, The Smiths’ second compilation album and one of the band’s final releases before their breakup a few months later. Perfectly straddling the artistic highpoint of The Queen is Dead and the bittersweet farewell of Strangeways, Here We Come, The World Won’t Listen is The Smiths at their most internally volatile and externally audacious. With singles, B-sides, and rarities that embraced new horizons, most anyone who had picked up the compilation at the start of 1987 surely would have thought that The Smiths were getting ready to enter into a triumphant new phase of their career.

In reality, dissension and uncertainty were fully taking over the band’s working relationships. Andy Rourke had been fired and then quickly rehired, but his continued drug use made his dependability for tours and recordings dicey at best. As a potential replacement, the group brought in Craig Gannon. Rourke was ultimately retained, so Gannon moved to second guitar for a short period. Through all of these changes, The Smiths also sought out a jump to a major label, frustrated by the reach of Rough Trade Records. Ironically, on an album where the band directly pointed to their vexations with distributions and scope, The World Won’t Listen would still be distributed by Rough Trade in the UK.

The band’s irritation with the modern musical landscape was confirmed from the very beginning with leadoff track ‘Panic’ imploring listeners to “hang the DJ” who plays frivolous pop music. Just by the nature of being a compilation album, The World Won’t Listen doesn’t manage to sustain any kind of specific message, instead jumping from personal insights to societal rebukes with whiplash speed. It would be jarring if not for the fact that The Smiths were crafting the best material they had ever written.

Tracks like ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ and ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’ would have been familiar to fans who bought The Queen is Dead, but it’s the B-sides that feature some of the band’s most fascinating and under-loved material. ‘London’ is an aggressively propulsive track featuring Marr and Gannon battling it out for ultimate guitar supremacy. Gannon’s jangly lead over the song’s final section recalls Marr’s own playing from the past, with Marr himself unleashing a torrent of distorted rhythm parts to push the band into a more assertive sonic space.

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The three B-sides that kick off the album’s second side, ‘Asleep’, ‘Unlovable’, and ‘Half a Person’, are The Smiths at their most morose and pessimistic. It’s also them at their most poignant and beautiful, with ‘Asleep’ carrying the air of a traditional piano ballad without the schmaltz that usually comes with the form. ‘Unloveable’ finds Morrissey willing to give away what little he believes he has, while ‘Half a Life’ recounts the desperation that comes with unrequited love. Those who regarded The Smiths as the “Masters of Mope” were sure to find plenty of ammo in this three-song stretch, but to the true believers, they represent everything that made The Smiths great.

Clocking in at just under an hour, The World Won’t Listen is more diverse in style than Hatful of Hollow and less unwieldy than Louder Than Bombs, representing the platonic ideal of The Smiths at their most self-aware and self-assured. At least, that’s how it appeared on the surface. Behind the scenes, divisions within the band were becoming more pronounced. Marr began to grow tired of the band’s established sound, picking up keyboards and composing arrangements outside of his usual guitar work. Rourke and Mike Joyce were feeling frustrated at their lack of input, the same reason why Gannon left the band only a few months after joining.

The group were still the darlings of the British music press, but articles alleging everything from racist connotations in ‘Panic’ to potential splits began to increase paranoia within the band. Marr wanted a break, but instead, decided to leave the group in the summer of 1987 following the completion of Strangeways. With business affairs in disarray and no clear direction forward without Marr, Morrissey, Rourke, and Joyce decided to split up a short time later.

Perhaps ironically, The World Won’t Listen peaked at number two on the UK Album Charts. The Smiths were at their peak of popularity, continuously selling out shows and landing hit records on both the singles and album charts. But tellingly, the compilation failed to make much noise outside of their homeland. That’s because a different compilation, with a reshuffled tracklist and some new additions, was released in America a month later. Louder Than Bombs only peaked at number 62 on the US Album Charts, proving to The Smiths that the rest of the world truly wasn’t listening after all.