Morrissey: Vauxhall and I (20th Anniversary Definitive Master)

Vauxhall and I has long been considered a pinnacle of Morrissey's solo work... is it still?


Vauxhall and I (20th Anniversary Definitive Master)

Label: Parlophone
US Release Date: 2014-06-03
UK Release Date: 2014-06-02

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.





'Everything's Gonna Be Okay' Is  Better Than Okay

The first season of Freeform's Everything's Gonna Be Okay is a funny, big-hearted love letter to family.


Jordan Rakei Breathes New Life Into Soul Music

Jordan Rakei is a restless artistic spirit who brings R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and pop craft into his sumptuous, warm music. Rakei discusses his latest album and new music he's working on that will sound completely different from everything he's done so far.


Country Music's John Anderson Counts the 'Years'

John Anderson, who continues to possess one of country music's all-time great voices, contemplates life, love, mortality, and resilience on Years.


Rory Block's 'Prove It on Me' Pays Tribute to Women's Blues

The songs on Rory Block's Prove It on Me express the strength of female artists despite their circumstances as second class citizens in both the musical world and larger American society.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 3, Echo & the Bunnymen to Lizzy Mercier Descloux

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part three with Echo & the Bunnymen, Cabaret Voltaire, Pere Ubu and more.


Wendy Carlos: Musical Pioneer, Reluctant Icon

Amanda Sewell's vastly informative new biography on musical trailblazer Wendy Carlos is both reverent and honest.


British Folk Duo Orpine Share Blissful New Song "Two Rivers" (premiere)

Orpine's "Two Rivers" is a gently undulating, understated folk song that provides a welcome reminder of the enduring majesty of nature.


Blesson Roy Gets "In Tune With the Moon" (premiere)

Terry Borden was a member of slowcore pioneers Idaho and a member of Pete Yorn's band. Now he readies the debut of Blesson Roy and shares "In Tune With the Moon".


In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.


Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.


Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.


Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.


Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.


'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.


Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.


From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.


Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.


Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".


On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.