It would be remarkable if any book in the series manages to contain fewer words about the album than this one. Joe Pernice describes the book as fiction, but it seems more like somewhat fictional autobiography. Somewhat fictional, autobiographical, teenage memoir.
Framed by the adult protagonist, hungover and returning from playing a gig in London, having an urge to listen to Meat Is Murder and plunging into a flashback that lasts for the rest of the book, the narrative is short on plot, tension and purpose. Characters are introduced and then disappear again, which is maybe fitting for the self-obsession of a teenage narrator but it’s a bit boring to read. There’s a group suicide, and then a running suicide joke between the narrator and his best friend. There’s girls, especially one, and the cachet of being in a band in terms of the social order, and a drift towards getting a band together. The conclusion is just where the book stops, adding up to a big so-what - more disappointing for having set up startling, bold fragments like “I was dying in Catholic school. It was spring and all anyone wanted to do was fuck.” and then meandering out of the clarity into mush again.
Writing a straight take on The Smiths and the album’s process would likely involve big, joyless stretches of having to deal with things like Morrissey and the album title - the worst thing ever, and I’ve been vegetarian since I was a self-righteous ten year old - so it’s a good cue for experimentation, finding another approach that deals with the best aspect of the album: the songs.
Music comes into the story as part of teenage life, and obviously, the anglophiles are set apart from the classic rock majority, and hearing imports and knowing about bands has its own kind of currency. A few paragraphs on a friend’s home-dubbed tapes and the abbreviated labels with no tracklists have a gorgeous sense of possibility that could have carried the book - this is The Smiths filtered through being a kid in Massachusetts, growing up in one place but listening to music from somewhere else and not knowing much about it or, say, being aware of the spectre of Thatcher in the background - and yet the payback is just getting a tracklisting later.
Pernice avoids describing how the music sounded or what the lyrics meant to the narrator, beyond skimming the surface. Instead, there’s the generalised minutiae of a life that may or may not be fictional, mentioning an album but with so little specificity that it could be swapped out for another with barely more than find-and-replace. As much as I appreciate the breadth of the approaches within the series, the only curiosity I have after reading this is whether it initially began with greater promise.
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