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(Credit: Rough Trade)

Music

Is 'Hatful of Hollow' the definitive album by The Smiths?

A mysterious and wise man once told me, “The only Smiths record you’ll ever need is Hatful of Hollow”. To which I responded, from beneath my curly mop, “Really?” in an almost dismissive tone. This mystical stranger responded unequivocally with a nod that was so self-confident, the 13-year-old me had no choice but to take this as gospel.

As the years wore on, as I was delving into The Smiths as an emotionally mangled adolescent, or sporadically coming back to them as an adult whenever I fancied hearing Johnny Marr‘s underrated licks on ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’, I could not forget the piece of information the elusive stranger had told me back when all I had for a reference point was my old man’s battered CD, 1992’s Best… I

Underneath the music, I could hear the faint whispers of the stranger, in his distinctly Leeds accent, like a musical Banquo haunting me with cries of ‘Hatful of Hollow’ and ‘Only Smiths record…’ as I entered adulthood, I started to realise what the stranger meant.

If you look at the tracklisting of the 1984 compilation, you’ll quickly heed that there’s no real low point. It was something of a greatest hits record by the band between their formation in 1982 and the point where they had established themselves as the de jure lords of the British indie movement. With the release of the record, they had codified the indie spirit, and moving forward, the middle of the decade was theirs.

‘William, It Was Really Nothing’, ‘What Difference Does It Make?’, ‘This Charming Man’, ‘How Soon Is Now?’, ‘Hand In Glove’ and even ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’, you could argue that all of The Smiths’ most important early songs comprise the album. This is not what makes it so brilliant, though. It is the way that songs on the record are alternative versions that makes it so essential. It is singles, B-sides and rarities all meshed into just over 56 minutes of The Smiths at some of their finest points. Take the David Jensen version of ‘These Things Take Time’, for instance. It was an augmented version of The Smiths that you got on Hatful of Hollow, and as an adult, I now see what the stranger meant.

‘What Difference Does It Make?’ was recorded during a BBC Peel Session, and it has a natural, darker edge to the single version. You can hear Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke dovetailing beautifully. Transposed to a higher key, it provides an exciting alternative to the single version.

Arguably The Smith’s most well-known hit, ‘This Charming Man‘, also from a Peel Session, is glorious. More downbeat than the single, musically, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it sounds like Blowin’ Your Mind! era Van Morrison. Rourke’s bassline carries the whole thing and confirms that he is indeed one of the most underrated bass players of all time. 

‘Still Ill’ is also different, as it opens and closes with a harmonica solo, a more complete take than the version on the band’s debut, The Smiths. One would argue that this is the definitive version of ‘Still Ill’. Jangly and atmospheric, it’s on moments like this that you realise how much of a breath of fresh air the band must have been at the time.

From the contemporary perspective, it sometimes seems as if The Smiths are one of the most consistently talked up bands of all time. However, on Hatful of Hollow, you get a very organic account of the band, and it confirms every common understanding of the group.

To the stranger who once told me that Hatful of Hollow is the only Smiths album you need, I get it. It trumps their debut in every way and is more consistent than their subsequent records, regardless of how expansive they would go on Meat Is Murder, and The Queen Is Dead. If you want to capture the early magic of The Smiths when arguably they were at their zenith, this is the album for you.

Listen to Hatful of Hollow in full below.