With Vauxhall And I, Morrissey found room to breathe

With Vauxhall And I, Morrissey found room to breathe

Welcome to the Music Roundtable, a blatant rip-off of TV Club’s TV Roundtable feature. Here, music writers and fans discuss recent reissues, hot new releases, or just records we like. This week, we’re talking about Morrissey’s album Vauxhall And I, which turns 20 this month. A definitive master was just released on Rhino.

Josh Modell: 1993 was a weird time to be a Morrissey fan, though I guess it’s probably always a weird time to be a Morrissey fan (or a Morrissey, come to think of it). A pretty great album that everyone hated (1991’s Kill Uncle) led to a slightly overrated album (1992’s Mick Ronson-produced Your Arsenal) that everyone loved and, more importantly, the complete return of Morrissey’s confidence. Vauxhall And I was neither the glam-rocker that directly preceded it nor the wimp-out that preceded that, but rather a return to the emotional complexity of his first (and best) solo album, Viva Hate. The cover photo is still shitty, but Vauxhall And I holds up with quiet confidence and beauty.

Though Moz’s rockabilly-inspired band influenced the sounds of the previous year, on Vauxhall he roped them into something more austere: Boz Boorer, the only constant in his musical life since this period, took control of half the songwriting, which had been the domain of Alain Whyte. Together, they gave Morrissey a little bit of room to breathe, which is monumentally evident on the album opener, “Now My Heart Is Full,” a song that stands among Morrissey’s best in its sweeping scope and ultra-specific lyrics. Though the album’s lore is frequently tied to the loss of several of Morrissey’s close friends—Ronson, video director Tim Broad, and manager Nigel Thomas—it’s actually quite hopeful in its sadness.

The song’s hit single—Morrissey’s only one in the U.S. for a long time before or after—was “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get,” a sort of by-the-numbers jangler that’s actually one of the weaker songs here. He’s at his best on “Why Don’t You Find Out For Yourself” and even the epic “Speedway,” though that song still has far more power in live versions that it does on the album, even this newly reissued version.

How about you, Annie? Were you an active Morrissey fan at the time, or did you come to Vauxhall after it was already being billed as one of a great man’s greatest accomplishments? (This, of course, happens with most of his albums.)

Annie Zaleski: In 1994, I was newly in the throes of what you could charitably call Morrissey fanaticism. I rotated three size-XL Smiths shirts purchased from Burning Airlines through my wardrobe, listened obsessively to the copy of Best… I purchased at Borders, and lived for the moments I’d hear a Moz or Smiths song on the radio or MTV.  Oddly, the latter scenario wasn’t out of the ordinary: “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get” was not only a hit in the U.S.—it even almost reached the Top 40—it landed in MTV’s modern-rock-spotlighting “Buzz Bin.”

Back then, I wasn’t really aware of how weird it was that the mainstream was welcoming him with open arms; I don’t think I had any sense that Vauxhall And I was a grand accomplishment within his career, either. I had amassed a bunch of Morrissey and Smiths albums by the time Vauxhall And I arrived, but I was immersed in the music more than the myth. As a mopey 15-year-old Moz acolyte, all I knew was that it made me happy to be able to hear this tortured, unloved artist seemingly everywhere.

Naturally, I gravitated toward Vauxhall And I once I finally obtained the record—I even have distinct memories of eating lunch alone in my high school’s courtyard while listening to a dubbed cassette version, as I had nobody to sit with. (Does it get more suburban-angst cliché than that?) My favorite songs were the weirder ones: “Billy Budd” and its muted glam squalls, or the sound effects-laden, droning “Spring-Heeled Jim,” as well as the jaunty (some might say Smiths-ian) “Why Don’t You Find Out For Yourself.” 

Vauxhall And I is also among Morrissey’s most direct records, lyrically. The acute loneliness and isolation of “I Am Hated For Loving” is described with painful eloquence, and the social dynamics (and implied selfishness) described in “Hold On To Your Friends” are vivid and compelling. “Billy Budd” is even bolder: Although it harks back to themes of doomed love Morrissey touched on a decade earlier in “Hand In Glove,” the hints about a forbidden gay relationship are transparent and heavy-handed.

It was easy to relate to Vauxhall And I’s moments of vulnerability and its flawed characters, even the more oblique ones, which made it welcoming. Yet, like all good Morrissey music, it also had plenty of his sly, dark humor: “The More You Ignore Me” mitigates his embedded despair with wit (e.g., “I bear more grudges / Than lonely high court judges”). While obsession-themed, there’s never the sense that Morrissey actually believes his desire will be actualized.

But listening to Vauxhall And I today, it’s even stranger that this record caught on so fiercely. Josh, while I completely agree with you that this record compares to Viva Hate, I think Vauxhall And I is far more cohesive and consistent. However, this is sometimes to its detriment; with the benefit of time, the record sounds a little monochromatic and sleepy. Live, these songs have velocity that brings out their strengths. I saw Morrissey twice in 2013 before his tours collapsed, and “Speedway” transformed into a roaring, electric pinnacle both times. This energy isn’t necessarily evident thanks to Steve Lillywhite’s genteel production. Paradoxically, what made Morrissey palatable to the masses also seemed to rob him of his urgency.

What do you say, David? Am I being too hard on Vauxhall And I because it doesn’t live up to my adolescent memories? Or is the record a deeply flawed masterpiece?

David Anthony: Before I get to those questions, I feel the need to present some facts that will, in theory, give some insight to my perspective. I was 4 when Vauxhall And I came out, which means I wasn’t even alive when The Smiths were a band. Those things notwithstanding, I came to Morrissey in my teen years, at that crucial moment that seems to be in line with so many others. That put me about a decade behind everyone else on Vauxhall (let alone any of his other work). In a way, this proved beneficial—I was removed from any of-the-moment hype, allowing myself to work my way through the discographies of both Morrissey and The Smiths without much outside influence.

These factors remove my ability to be able to speak about what it was like when Vauxhall was released, but when I first heard it I’d have to say that I agreed with Annie in that it felt a bit one-note. The initial appeal of Morrissey (to me, at least) stemmed from his ability to throw in odd, eccentric moments during songs (the high-pitched yelp in “This Charming Man” being a prime example) without batting an eye. The production on his previous albums (and on the superb singles that make up Bona Drag) had a loose, combustive feel, giving the illusion that at any second the jangling guitars and shaking drums would all collapse in on themselves, a feeling that’s lacking on Vauxhall. The guitars were clean and clear, the drums were reined in with expert precision, and Morrissey picks his range and sticks to it. One of the first lines on album opener “Now My Heart Is Full” is “The whole house will need rebuilding,” and that feels like an apt description of Vauxhall’s direction. A band that was coming into its own anchored him, and that allowed for Morrissey’s confidence to appear unshaken.

Though they are of varying quality (with Viva Hate being the best of them), the first three Morrissey albums tend to blend together a bit for me. The shifting lineups, coupled with the desire for Morrissey’s guitarists to ape Johnny Marr, even the oddball Kill Uncle can’t help but feel like it’s a band attempting to cram itself into someone else’s shoes. Vauxhall shakes off any dead skin the band had collected, and, along with it, any lingering expectations. Guitarists Alain Whyte and Boz Boorer forgo attempts to approximate what a modern-day Smiths would sound like and truly give themselves to the task of crafting the best songs possible. The album is slower and more methodical than what came before it, and the results feel dour compared to its predecessors. Even the chart-topping single “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get” doesn’t burst out of the gates, instead being a quasi-ballad that lurched into the hearts of the masses. When Annie asked if Vauxhall And I is “a deeply flawed masterpiece,” it’s hard to argue against the fact that, while it’s certainly flawed, it’s one of Morrissey’s top-tier solo albums, even if it rarely attempts to tinker with the formula, occasionally feeling like a funeral procession because of it.

What are your thoughts, Ignatiy? Am I way off base here, or does this album actually signify a bit of a change for Moz? And, if so, was it a good one?

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky: When Vauxhall came out, I was a Russian soon-to-be-second-grader. My chief interests were Batman Returns and the Dendy, a Taiwanese clone of the NES that was popular in the former Soviet Union. I was initiated into the cult of The Smiths midway through high school (a.k.a. the early 2000s), and didn’t start picking up Morrissey’s solo records until I’d exhausted the band’s discography.

Oddly, the first one that piqued my interest was Southpaw Grammar, which might explain why I tend to prefer the more musically eclectic side of Morrissey’s solo career. (Like Josh, I think Kill Uncle is underrated.) The two best tracks on Vauxhall, in my opinion, are the ones that diverge most significantly from the album’s central sonic formula: On one end of the spectrum, there’s the strummy “Why Don’t You Find Out For Yourself,” which strikes me as one of Morrissey’s most emotionally intimate solo tracks, with an understated whisper-in-your-ear vocal performance; on the other, there’s “Speedway,” one of his most overblown songs, the album’s simplest lyrics combined with pounding drums and the sound of a chainsaw.

If you listen to the jangly demo of the former, it becomes clear that Steve Lillywhite intended the album version to be a departure from Morrissey’s usual group sound. (By the way, it’s a shame that the bonus disc for this 20th-anniversary release consists of a so-so live show, instead of the album’s widely bootlegged outtakes and demos; it would be great to hear a cleaner version of the swirl-less, chugga-chugga post-punk first mix of “Billy Budd.”)

Whether the album itself constitutes a departure is a different matter; I actually think much of it sounds like a continuation of Your Arsenal. Yes, it’s a very good album, but it’s no masterpiece; I don’t think any of Morrissey’s solo albums are, though I love most of them dearly. Vauxhall has flaws, but they’re superficial.  

What it is, I think, is one of Moz’s least uneven albums. It’s probably the only one that I routinely listen to straight through, without skipping tracks. (I can’t say the same for Viva Hate.) And therein in lies its stature; it doesn’t contain Morrissey’s best songwriting or his best vocals, and some of its production errs on the side of generic alt-rock, but it flows from start to finish.

JM: Well, you’ve all made me feel very old, but also very cool, having experienced the Morrissey of this era firsthand. There was a group of kids—some of whom I still know—who followed every single show on Morrissey’s world tours around this time; there was a rumor that one of them was the inspiration for “Spring-Heeled Jim,” because he always managed to make it onstage to give Morrissey a hug.

That’s a roundabout way of getting to Vauxhall’s bonus disc, a live recording from 1995. Morrissey rarely does anything dramatically different in concert, but the disc does include two songs from the period that never made it onto studio albums—and that are fantastic. Fully recorded versions of “Boxers” and “Jack The Ripper” do exist, but you can hear them coming to life here.

And one more thing: Morrissey has once again messed with the artwork for a reissue, though not nearly as bad as he has in recent years. Vauxhall And I got itself a new front-cover font, though it retains the smeary picture. Be glad it didn’t suffer the same fate as Bona Drag (which got a color change and an ugly gothic font), Viva Hate (which lost its iconic, shadowy picture in favor of a straight-on snapshot), or Kill Uncle (on which Morrissey didn’t only completely change the artwork, but also fucked around with the track listing). You can’t go home again, Uncle Steve.

AZ: Josh, might I add that the recent reissue of Your Arsenal also featured some tracklist fuckery: For some reason, the U.S. single mix of “Tomorrow” replaced the original version. (As this is my favorite Moz solo song by far, I’m not racing to get that one, despite the promise of a bonus live DVD.) Morrissey’s insistence on historical revision is frustrating, especially because he’s just pissing off the loyalists and purists. Ignatiy, to your point about reissue bells and whistles—the 2009 revamp of Southpaw Grammar, which is perhaps my favorite Morrissey solo record, featured unreleased tracks and new, non-lame artwork. At least Vauxhall And I has kept its skeleton intact.

Anyway, I actually seem to be in the minority, as I really enjoyed the live 1995 concert with the Vauxhall And I reissue. Sure, it’s a pretty common set from this era. However, on the bright side, you can clearly hear how the glammy flamboyance of the Your Arsenal years lingers—whether on the Smiths’ “London,” the dizzying “National Front Disco,” or a livelier “Billy Budd” and “Spring-Heeled Jim.” I’m also jazzed by the appearances of “Boxers” and “Jack The Ripper”; the latter especially is one of Moz’s finest solo songs. And “Why Don’t You Find Out For Yourself”—which I think we’ve established as an across-the-board favorite—sounds note-perfect. (Only The Killers’ version of this comes close.)

Above all, Morrissey sounds like he’s finally come close to reconciling (and assimilating) the sound and textures of his Smiths and solo years. He’s confident, playful, and faux-cranky, and he clearly knows he’s at the top of his game. If anything, it’s almost bittersweet to hear Moz’s breezy jocularity, especially since in recent years, he’s had trouble getting a record deal or pulling off a cancellation-free concert tour. Consider this tour a relic from when things were comfortably despondent.

Anyway, if there’s a reason to be irritated with this bonus show, consider that the reissue seems to leave out the final two songs of the set, going by the archival setlist: “Speedway” and an abbreviated “Shoplifters Of The World Unite.” Nothing bugs me more than when officially released live shows are incomplete, so discovering this fact was certainly a strike against it.

DA: Aside from the omissions of “Speedway” and “Shoplifters Of The World Unite,” I also find the live show fairly enjoyable. Though I’d hesitate to call it mandatory—or even a truly great bonus—I think it does a commendable job of showcasing both the successes and the flaws of the album it’s paired with. While much of the proper album tends to blend together due to its fairly of-the-moment production, the live set exposes the sharper edges of songs that were a little dulled on the record. The one-two punch of “Why Don’t You Find Out For Yourself” and “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get” proves that the songs on Vauxhall are some of Morrissey’s best, even if the flair tends to get lost in that glossy, mid-’90s sheen.

That’s why it’s so disappointing to see “Speedway” missing from this live set, as it’s a song that seems tailored to explosive live renditions. Not only is it one of my favorite Morrissey songs, it’s one that I often cringe mere seconds into when that loud revving (which I assume is supposed to be a motorcycle and not a strange homage to Jackyl) comes in and disrupts that first verse. It speaks to the fact that even though Vauxhall contains some of Morrissey’s best songs, their presentation on the album can often make them feel a bit muddled. It’s nice to have a live set that brings out some of the vibrancy lost on the album, even if the set suffers from Morrissey’s newfound revisionist tendencies.

IV: David, I think it’s time we settle what is arguably the single most debated subject in Morrissey fandom: The sound at the beginning of “Speedway” is, in fact, a gas-powered chainsaw.

All of us single out “Why Don’t You Find Out For Yourself” as one of the album’s best tracks. It’s an atypical song, both in its production (which wouldn’t sound out of place on Kill Uncle) and in Morrissey’s restrained vocal. It’s the kind of song I wish he’d recorded more of, and I’m guessing a lot of Morrissey fans share this feeling. Throughout this roundtable, we’ve all brought up things we’d wish Morrissey would do or this album would do or this release would include. So doesn’t it seem like an integral part of Morrissey appreciation (and fandom) is wishing he’d do something that he didn’t or won’t?

In both The Smiths and his solo output, Morrissey has built a persona around grand expressions of frustration—personal, social, sexual. His dramatic voice and knowing, winking lyrics articulate a kind of common, self-loathing anger.

So maybe it’s the ultimate act of tribute to be continually frustrated with everything the guy does—from the small flaws of his great albums to the way he handles their re-releases.


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