[27 June 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
During his 25-plus-year solo career, Morrissey has maintained a decent-sized, worldwide cadre of fans who are generally pleased with his every move. But he has never had a very consistent go of it from critics. Every masterpiece that reminds us why he is the tenacious pop icon is followed by a ripe excuse to dismiss him anew. In fact, Morrissey’s very career has come to depend on this cycle. The last couple decades have amounted to a herky-jerky series of shamings and comebacks.
This rather tumultuous critical history is just one of the reasons why Vauxhall and I is special. Not only is it considered by fans and critics alike to be an outstanding Morrissey album, maybe the very best, but it also comprises half of Moz’s only true one-two punch. Released in March 1994, Vauxhall and I was the follow-up to Your Arsenal (1992). That album, produced by legendary Bowie sideman Mick Ronson, was itself considered a high water mark, as Morrissey broke free of fey indie pop and, powered by Ronson and a new, rockabilly-rooted backing band, roared toward new rock ‘n’ roll and glam heights without sacrificing sensitivity or his way with a slow song. Vauxhall and I remains the one occasion in Morrissey’s post-Smiths lifetime when most everyone could agree he went from strength to strength.
In a rare case of restraint, Morrissey has left this “20th Anniversary Definitive Master” mostly free of the Lucasian meddling that has characterized his previous reissues. The original 11-song tracklist remains intact. This truly allows an opportunity to reassess with the benefit of two decades’ hindsight. And, yes, Vauxhall and I is still great. If anything, its charms have become even more appealing with the passage of time.
With Mick Ronson having succumbed to cancer in 1993, Moz turned to veteran Steve Lillywhite, who was known for his atmospheric touches with otherwise straightforward, anthemic rock. Lillywhite’s rich “wall of sound” style is another reason Vauxhall and I is special. A glowing, womblike sense of ethereality envelops every song, fast and slow, and lends the album a sense of wonder, not to mention cohesion. It’s not rip roarin’ Ronson, but it yields its own pleasures and complements Morrissey’s generally mellow mood.
Everywhere you listen, Vauxhall and I is full of small but crucial sonic touches. The bass guitar carefully recorded to sound like a sequencer and the wave of feedback that announce “Spring-Heeled Jim”. The clanging, almost industrial drums and massive sonic wall of closer “Speedway”, which enforces Morrissey’s defiant lyrics so powerfully that nothing faster than a midtempo lope is necessary to get the message across. The bits of sampled dialogue that pepper “Spring-Heeled Jim”, “Billy Budd”, and, with headphones, “Why Don’t You Find Out for Yourself”, do more than harken back to the Smiths’ chilling “Rubber Ring”. They add to the impression you’re being treated to a carefully-curated, immersive sonic experience.
They also help open up a window into Morrissey’s world. Morrissey’s music had always been about bringing the listener into his closely-held, ornately idiosyncratic psyche. It was a world full of his own thoughts, feelings, values, and observations, but also one stocked with well-written characters, both real and imagined. More than any of his work before or since, Vauxhall and I renders that world so completely end evocatively that you feel you’ve been let on the inner workings of a secret club or, as Morrissey would have it, gang. Literary and cultural references abound, from Graham Greene and Dickens to Melville and Presley. Yet none of it sounds forced or contrived, for reasons that also make Vauxhall and I special.
For one, Morrissey’s co-songwriters/guitarists Alain Whyte and Boz Boorer deliver some very strong material. The effortless melodicism and sparkling guitar arpeggios of “Hold On to Your Friends”, “Why Don’t You Find Out for Yourself”, and “I Am Hated for Loving” are comfortingly Smiths-like without being a rehash. Morrissey’s band was already being dismissed by many critics as staid, but Whyte and Boorer add some textures and styles that prove they’re more than just pretty pompadour haircuts. The classic rock and glam haven’t been abandoned completely. Rather, they’re just more subtle, such as the increasingly sinister fadeout of “Hold On to Your Friends”. All these elements come together perfectly on “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get”. Boorer’s slowed-down rockabilly riff quite literally drills its way into your ear before it’s eventually offset by another gorgeous arpeggio. Throughout the album, Whyte’s backing vocals provide deft, easily-overlooked touches.
And then there is Morrissey himself. Probably the most crucial reason Vauxhall and I is so special is that he sounds so comfortable, charitable, and good-humored, at least for him. His downright playfulness on “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get” helped make that song his only significant mainstream hit in the US. It’s actually tough to imagine the 2014-model Morrissey asking another human being, without irony, to “let me in”, even if doing so is to “take the easy way and give in.” Nor would it be likely, these days, to hear him advising to “hold on to your friends” at all costs because “there just might come a time when you need some.” There are hints of the bitterness and persecution complex that would color much of Morrissey’s subsequent work, but even these are good for a coy turn of phrase like “Speedway”‘s “All of the rumors keeping me grounded / I never said that they were completely unfounded.”
If there’s any knock on Vauxhall and I it’s that the late stretch of ballads becomes a little too ethereal. “Used to Be a Sweet Boy” and “The Lazy Sunbathers” sound fine but it’s tough to imagine them making even the most esoteric list of favorite Morrissey songs. Finally, for some fans there’s the matter of “what would the album have sounded like had Mick Ronson lived long enough to produce it?” It’s impossible to answer, but the live show from 1995, included with this 20th Anniversary reissue, offers some hints. The five Vauxhall and I songs on the setlist are rendered in stripped-down, no-nonsense rock ‘n’ roll fashion, and they sound great. The Lillywhite glow is missing, but in its place are a raw power and energy that make the prospect of a Ronson production intriguing.
But, then, it’s tough to imagine Vauxhall and I turning out any other way than it did. On this truly essential entry in the Smiths/Morrissey oeuvre, songwriting, performance, and production intersected in a place that was and remains, in a word, special.