The Smiths' final album is a divisive and difficult one in a lot of ways. For one, it does not sound much like the other Smiths albums, with little of Johnny Marr's trademark beautiful cascading, ringing guitar tone or the highly elaborate, layered production that went into previous albums. It sounds a bit more like Morrissey's solo albums would, with kind of a loping, carnivalesque sound to it. Their breakup imminent, it does give the distinct impression that Moz had largely taken over the band and it was by this point much less of a collaborative concern (although it is a little bit hard to say given Marr's post-Smiths elusiveness). Certainly he indulges his unusual vocal tics a great deal more than on the other Smiths albums.
Speaking of controversy, may as well address the elephant in the room regarding "Paint a Vulgar Picture" in that everything that Morrissey self-righteously rails against in the song has been thoroughly perpetrated via The Smiths' discography in the intervening years such that any 'new' Smiths release is immediately (and snottily) greeted with the lyrics of this very song. Do their subsequent repackaging and reissuing ad nauseam invalidate the message of the song? I would argue the contrary, that they exemplify the song's message, serving only to show its inherent incisive truth. They are, after all, hardly a band that ever set themselves up as paragons of virtue (one bleating awful track aside), with an image more akin to decadent socialites.
Anyway, what really matters here is the songs, and Strangeways is rich in that respect. "A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours" is a brilliant opener (with one of the all-time great Smiths lines - 'they said there's too much caffeine in your bloodstream and a lack of real spice in your life.'), even with Morrissey doing a weird growly thing going into the chorus. There is a harder edge to the music on this album, less bright and sprightly, and a whole lot more sturm und drang. See for instance "Death of a Disco Dancer" with its thunderous orchestral closing section. On the other hand, "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before" is one of their most perfectly jangly, beautiful tunes. This is an album of big contrasts, and of them trying everything out before the end, and while it does make for a jagged and uneven listening experience, it also makes for some very high heights. Sure, "Unhappy Birthday" is a bit too on the nose and that two minutes of football crowd noise before "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me" could probably have been trimmed a bit, but they are indications that even at this point they were still willing to try all sorts of interesting diversions, which is admirable.
Strangeways, Here We Come may be messy, but it is also a thoroughly intriguing and often brilliant collection of songs, and a fitting goodbye to one of the most original and fascinating bands of the eighties (until the next repackage).