* * * 1/2 "STRANGEWAYS, HERE WE COME." The Smiths. Sire. You may remember Pee-wee Herman, at the end of his long-running stage show, flying off into the sunset, repeating, "I'm the luckiest boy in the world." In a similar way, it's not difficult to imagine fragile Morrissey, singer and lyricist for the Smiths, floating into a hazy sky softly crooning, "I'm the loneliest boy in the world." If Suzanne Vega is the current apologist for the joys of solitude, Morrissey is practically a one-man cottage industry advertising its utter torment.
Morrissey may be one of England's favorite pop singers, but fame hasn't changed his primary obsession: involuntary isolation. A key song on the last album was titled "Unloveable," and the best cut on the new one is "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me." Opening with a minute's worth of what sounds like screaming souls caught up in the hellfire of Morrissey's tormented psyche, the song suddenly erupts into a lush, haunting ballad--replete with strings--as Morrissey croons that last night's pleasant dream of being held and wanted was "just another false alarm." Sigh. Big sigh.
Now, it appears, Morrissey is going to go be lonely by his solo self, because the Smiths are breaking up--due to the departure of irreplaceable guitarist Johnny Marr, who put guileless melodies to Morrissey's misery.
"Strangeways" is quite a send-off, though, a slightly more eclectic than usual collection representing the band's most consistent work to date. Marr turns in his most versatile mix of guitar styles yet, from hard pop to light acoustic tones and even zither, as well as providing delectable string and sax arrangements on several tracks.
Morrissey, for his part, has cut much of the silliness that marred past records, though the dry wit--we're talking dry , folks--is still much in evidence. Rants against departed lovers are plentiful ("I've come to wish you an unhappy birthday," he sings in one of his more benign post-relationship snits). Amusingly, when Morrissey isn't crying over being ignored by the rest of the human race, he's not afraid to paint himself as being as much of a narcissistic cad as all the other homo sapiens who are presumably neglecting him. His emotions come uncensored.