Morrissey “Vauxhall and I” Re-issue review by Fergal Kinney
Vauxhall and I
Re-issue album review review by Fergal Kinney
“Four people sat in the same room discussing exciting plans for the year ahead” recounted Morrissey in his autobiography, “only I remain alive one year on”. 1992’s “Your Arsenal” had been a much needed success in the UK and the US, but shortly the album’s release, Morrissey lost not only the album’s producer – and one time Spider From Mars – Mick Ronson, but his manager Nigel Thomas and trusted video director Tim Broad. With his back against the wall and severely bereft by the loss of so much of his devoted team, Morrissey spent June, July and August of 1993 at Hook End Manor studios in Oxfordshire, recording what would become his masterpiece. “Vauxhall and I” isn’t Morrissey’s best solo album – it’s his best ever album. Forget “the Queen is Dead” or “Viva Hate” – on “Vauxhall and I” Morrissey did just that. Everything about the album is Morrissey defenestrating his past – even the album sleeve. Face unshaven and shirt unbuttoned, for the first time Morrissey looks his full thirty-five years, and older still.
“There’s gonna be some trouble”, he gravely intones at the beginning of the album, and he’s not wrong. Like the best of opening tracks, ‘Now My Heart is Full’ continues to permeate every track that follows it, seeping a grand melancholy that refuses to cease until the final crashing drums of album closer ‘Speedway’. As the shimmering wooziness of ‘Now My Heart is Full’ soars into full-blown anthemia, Morrissey delivers the crucial line “I just can’t explain, so I won’t even try to”: after a decade as pop’s most articulate songsmith, this admission makes it known that business as usual this is not. “Vauxhall and I” has its fair share of venom – the seething “Why Don’t You Find Out For Yourself” is a masterstroke in brutal beauty – but it’s resigned admissions such as this that so often anchor Morrissey emotionally in places other artists struggle to reach even once. Drenched in almost shoegaze levels of reverb, ‘Now My Heart is Full’ is a swift and stark departure from the guttural glam of “Your Arsenal”. Indeed, only ‘Spring-Heeled Jim’ and ‘Billy Budd’ act as a bridge between “Arsenal” and “Vauxhall”, and even these are more sinister and unsettling than anything seen previously. At the time, many critics observed an address in ‘Billy Budd’ to the song’s protagonist that “now it’s twelve years on” – a curious line given “Vauxhall and I” came precisely twelve year since Morrissey met Johnny Marr and formed the Smiths. Much of “Vauxhall and I”, it seems, is the exorcising of demons – the enigmatic “Used to be a Sweet Boy” offers glimpses of a past filled with regret and parental disappointment, whilst equally ambiguous are the semi-confessions at the end of ‘Speedway’ – ‘All of the rumours keeping me grounded, I never said they were completely unfounded’. For some, this was read as a nod in the direction of Jake Walters. Vauxhall-born Walters, receiving a ‘very special thanks’ in the album liner notes, was Morrissey’s assistant and housemate whilst “Vauxhall and I” was being recorded, and only with last year’s autobiography did Morrissey offer some confirmation to the speculation.
Morrissey’s brief to album producer Steve Lilywhite was that “Vauxhall and I” was not to be ‘an indie album´ – the gorgeously layered ‘Hold Onto Your Friends’ and the whispering ‘Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning’ put paid to quite how apart “Vauxhall and I” stands from Morrissey’s work before it, and the best of Morrissey’s post-“Vauxhall” work has directly channelled this. The album shares much with R.E.M’s ‘Automatic for the People’ – released two years before with a similar stylistic break from its more typically indie predecessors, and with a similar resigned, late night feel. This baton would itself be passed onto one Thom Yorke, who remarked that “Vauxhall and I” was ‘all over the Bends’. Morrissey’s observation that “Vauxhall and I” was an “end-of-reign” album is notable; released the same summer as ‘Parklife’ and ‘Definitely Maybe’, ‘Vauxhall and I’ was a tacit farewell to Morrissey’s domination of British guitar music as a new generation (mostly Smiths disciples themselves) were to set alight the pages of NME and Melody Maker in much the same way as himself.
“Vauxhall and I” remains a staggeringly beautiful record; a man at the peak of his powers grappling with an uncertain future and an equally uncertain past. In 1985 Morrissey sang about “the fierce last stand of all I am”, but in 1994 he finally recorded it.