Mixtapes for Hookers

How Soon Is Now? How Will I Know?
February 12, 2010, 9:36 pm
Filed under: music | Tags: , , ,

Twenty-five years ago, on Valentine’s Day 1985, the Smiths released their second album, Meat Is Murder.*  Darker and more political than their debut, the album took unrequited love to its somber extreme.  Morrissey, ever the repressed dandy, used sarcasm and stoniness to hide his inabilities to relate:  “If the day came when I felt a natural emotion,” he says on “Nowhere Fast,” “I’d get such a shock I’d probably jump in the ocean.”  (That sounds better than it reads, by the way.)

The rockabilly-ish “Rusholme Ruffians” features stabbings and beatings, and the title track is six minutes of lamenting about slaughtered animals.   The  first song on the album addresses institutional violence, while one towards the end is called “Barbarism Begins At Home.”  The only single from Meat Is Murder, technically, is “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore,” a chorus-less five-minute dirge about suicide jokes.

“How Soon Is Now,” which appeared on the American version of the album but not the original British pressing, is now firmly established in the canon of mopey songs about loneliness.  But Rough Trade sabotaged its chances of becoming a chart hit by first including it as the B-side to the 1984 single “William It Was Really Nothing,” then by leaving it off the album; the single, released shortly just two weeks in advance of Meat Is Murder, stalled on the UK charts at #24.

My favorite track on the album, “I Want The One I Can’t Have,” features a thirteen-year old cop killer, but it’s also the album’s most boisterous song.  And, for those who hate Valentine’s Day, it offers some lewd (albeit sound) advice: “If you ever need self-validation,” Morrissey says, “Just meet me in the alley by the railway station.”

Despite, or maybe because of, all the sexually frustrated violence and gloom, Meat Is Murder somehow managed to top the UK charts, becoming the only Smiths album to ever do so.  (It only spent one week at the top, though, being quickly ousted by the terrible reign of Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required.)  Based largely on the strength of the tacked-on “How Soon Is Now,” the album has since become a classic, with Rolling Stone ranking it as #295 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

41 places higher on that same Rolling Stone list is another album that was released on Valentine’s Day, 1985.  Like Meat Is Murder, the album takes romantic love to its most dramatic extreme.  Not with blood and violence, but with alternating mourning and ecstasy for one’s own emotions.

Hair pulled back, sitting in a field wearing some sort of cream-colored toga thing, Whitney Houston looked oddly regal on the cover of her debut album.  On the back cover she looks even more serious, but also kind of silly as she stands ankle-deep in water wearing a white one-piece swimsuit with her head perched towards heaven.

On the strength of hit singles like the joyously lonely “How Will I Know” and the miserably lonely “Saving All My Love For You,” Whitney Houston would go on to sell thirteen million copies and spend fourteen non-consecutive weeks at number one.  (Her follow-up, the livelier Whitney album, would become the first album by a solo female to ever debut at number one.)

Whitney Houston‘s biggest hit, “The Greatest Love Of All,” was the album’s sixth single.  Like the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now,” it was first released as a B-side to a different single, but unlike the Smiths Whitney had a lot of luck with the song.  It cemented her reputation as a hit-making balladeer and paved the way for ever more dramatic hits like “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” “All The Man That I Need,” and her biggest hit, a cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.”

Two songs on Whitney Houston deserve special mention:  “How Will I Know,” despite some rather poorly dated production swirls, sounds splashy and fun, capturing youthful infatuation better than you’d expect from a gospel-trained singer.  At the opposite end of the spectrum is a song about despair so intense that it would probably wouldn’t sound that odd with Morrissey singing it.  “All At Once” is, to my ears, the  most perfect R&B ballad of the 1980s.  It’s a straightforward story:  girl loves boy, boy doesn’t love girl, boy loves some other girl instead.  Tears, tears, tears.  But the way Houston sings it, with a passion that really sounds like someone drifting on a lonely sea, it’s completely gripping.  Sure it’s cheesy.  But is it really any cheesier than Morrissey bemoaning his human need to be loved?

[*One of those changes coming to the site is that I’m going to try using standard punctuation rules when it comes to song and album titles.  I don’t want to, but I know I should.  So.]

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