The Smiths – I Know It’s Over
Songs of love and hate? That’s all of them, right? How on earth is one supposed to choose one of them to write about? Actually, one leapt to mind pretty much straight away: the nastiest, most self-absorbed, most spiteful, most pathetic, most melodramatic song of… well, not love. Certainly not love. But definitely hate. Because make no bones about it; Morrissey hates everyone in this song: the loutish lover; the sad bride; the handsome groom; the yearned-for mother he calls at its opening. But most of all, the singer of this song hates himself.
“The knife wants to slit me. Do you think you can help me?”
This is the song that expresses… no, embodies… no, the song that is the basest, most selfish impulses you can experience, laid out for all to see. Sung nakedly. Played with far more poise and grace and sophistication than the emotions on display deserve.
Emotions? Emotion. Because there’s really only one emotion here, underneath the desire and jealousy and loathing and antipathy and weary discontent. Self-hate.
Some personal context: The Smiths aren’t my band, the way that some other bands are. I feel no sense of ownership or kinship or belonging to their cult, particularly. I’m too young to have caught them in their (brief, prolific) heyday, and by the time I was a teenager exploring music they were a relic, something my older brother had listened to and that, thus, I would ignore, because who wants to follow the path already trodden? So I consigned them to a mental dustbin, labelled “miserablist parody”, and carried on with other music.
I eventually bought The Queen Is Dead when I was at university, treated it almost like a coursework assignment, and, like Adorno or Debord or Barthes, admired it and absorbed its ideas and structures, and never considered that I could fall in love with it.
“If you’re so very entertaining, then why are you alone tonight?”
(There’s this great story about how Johnny Marr, one evening in the studio sans Morrissey, wrote a beautiful, drifting piece of music, ephemeral and grooving, layered, subtle, melodic, and sophisticated, which he was immensely proud of, and when he came back in the next afternoon found, to his dismay, that Morrissey had written the vocal melody and lyrics, and christened it “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”. Somehow that gets to the essence of how I feel about The Smiths, even though I acknowledge fully that Marr’s sophistication would be nothing without Morrissey’s onanistic verbiage.
“Because tonight is just like any other night.”
But I almost did fall in love with “I Know It’s Over”; or at least, I could allow myself to be swept up in the hopeless melodrama of it, the platonic essence of the impassioned, ennui-and-doubt-riddled adolescent, who feels both better than (smarter, more sensitive, more worthwhile) and inferior to (weaker, uglier, more ignorable)… well, everyone else.
“Love is natural and real. But not for such as you and I, my love.”
But of course Morrissey was well past adolescence and deep into his twenties by the time he recorded The Queen Is Dead, a veteran of several bands and pretty massive success with The Smiths; he was, you’d assume, far from the powerless, sour-faced teenage boy that these emotions seem to encapsulate. I’d posit that it’s this distance and remove from actual adolescence that allows him to so perfectly nail the solipsism and self-loathing of it, and unify the anguish with the innate humour that these intense, all-consuming, crushingly inescapable emotions intrinsically have. Because once you’re past feeling that way it seems silly, but whilst you’re in it…
“Oh mother I can feel the soil falling over my head…”
As the song cycles through its last minute, Stephen Patrick Morrissey repeats over and over, each time more dramatic, more deranged, more pained, that bleakest-of-bleak, most egoistic of lines, no room to care about how anyone else might feel (or even acknowledge that they might feel at all, beyond base signifiers of emotion). The power of the performance is immense; even now, comfortably into my thirties, happily married, I have to surrender, twist the volume knob, bellow along from deep inside my belly, recall the dark hole that you can feel inside as a lonely teenage boy sometimes, not caused by unrequited love but by the fear that love, for you, will never, ever exist, fear born out of hatred for your own weakness and stupidity. So yes, this is my favourite song of love and hate; the ultimate expression of both, as silly and serious and intense and irresistible as those two emotions themselves.
— Nick Southall