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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" is uniquely structured in its depressive dealings

I was first drawn to this Smiths track by its odd form, but with every listen, I feel a deeper connection to the lyrics and their setting.

In a pop music world so reliant on consistency within a piece, what happens when a piece has an unconventional form that neglects repetition of its first section?

While some may expect such a distinction to be a deal-breaker, that certainly isn't the case by its lonesome. Repetition is just one aspect of music, and if the various aspects combine to warrant a unique structure, there isn't a need to shoehorn a project into an established template. Rather, it is in the uniqueness that true artistry often emerges.

The Smiths' "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore," from 1985's Meat Is Murder, has always stood out to me because of its unique "ABCBC" form: the first verse is stated, but never repeated. Its artistic success is a reminder that, while conventions emerge in any artistic endeavor, they are by no means rules or requirements that an act must follow in order to be accepted. With the songwriting and performing talent the Smiths had, they were able to make the most of the unconventional arrangement and turn it into one of their most emotionally stirring tracks. In recent listens, the emotion behind Morrissey's lyrics has also become an aspect of note as I reflect on my long-standing battle with mental illness.

Ever since first being exposed to the Smiths' music about a decade ago, I've been fascinated with how Morrissey and Johnny Marr came to have such a distinct style in their songwriting partnership. Between Morrissey's signature lyrical style — self-deprecating as it pertains to today's selection — and Marr's penchant for less conventional chord changes, their style has dual airs of sophistication in the popular music world and a stream of consciousness approach to their music. In fact, Marr is on record when it comes to "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" that its structure "just fell through the roof." I'll say that it takes a special musical mind not only to have that form fall in his lap, but also to make it so compelling and enjoyable on a casual listen.

What I also find so interesting about Marr's role, both on this song and in general in the Smiths' work, is how his bright, jangly guitar tone doesn't create a disconnect with the more dour mood frequently imparted by Morrissey's lyrics, as well as by the other present instruments. I attribute this concordance to two aspects of the music. Firstly, the chord selection, when played by multiple instruments like in "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore," does more to characterize the song than a single instrumental line. Secondly, the Smiths' production kept Marr's acoustic guitar from dominating the mix. Instead, in moments of greater emotion, Marr backs Morrissey with a high and expressive slide guitar that fills the space beneath the vocals while also augmenting the latter's lyrical melancholy. In addition to Marr, Andy Rourke's bass line grounds the chord progression, while Mike Joyce's drums are typical of the late 80s with his loud, anchoring snare hits, but are kept behind the song's pitched elements.

Like Marr with his songwriting, Morrissey takes a less conventional approach to repetition in his lyrics — in his case, by not repeating lyrics between sections at all. I alluded to a stream of consciousness idea earlier, and I find that idea holds strongly for "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore." Through Morrissey's narrating lens, the song comes across as a tender yet unreserved reflection on depression, first examining the mockery of others' suffering from it before discussing the narrator falling victim to the same sorrow themselves. It's so easy to "kick [people] when they fall down" that many of us do so without realizing the damage we internally cause them. Then, in a cruel twist of fate, we begin to understand the pain they feel because we begin to fall victim to the same depressive episodes.

The shift in tone from the second verse ("It was dark as I drove the point home...") to the long outro ("I've seen this happen in other people's lives / And now it's happening in mine") is stark, but it more than works to drive home the onset of depression in someone who never expected it to befall them. I connect with this shift in terms of how I look back on my life and the onset of my mental health struggles a little under a decade ago. My naïve preteen self never gave a passing thought to the idea of suffering in this way, until it nearly became too late and I narrowly avoided digging myself into a hole out of which I couldn't climb. "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" now strikes me as a reminder of just how much words matter, and how commonplace depression has become. In that vein, its fade out and subsequent fade back from in around 3:30 to 4:05 take on a whole new meaning. Whereas I previously thought of it just as a mixing gimmick like on Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds" or the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" (which George Martin did to edit out some percussion inconsistencies), I now hear it as a sonic representation of the inescapability of mental illness. One can attempt to block it out once they've begun to feel its symptoms, but it's something that sticks with you for life and will inevitably have its more intense episodes.


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