It would seem that anytime Morrissey suffers a personal loss in his life, he makes a memorable album. After his musical collaborator Johnny Marr left The Smiths, in 1988, Morrissey made Viva Hate. After the rousing success of Your Arsenal, Morrissey was looking forward with a long lasting musical partnership with former Bowie stalwart Mick Ronson. But sadly, Ronson died of liver cancer after finishing the album. Two other close confidants died in the same year, and the emotional mourning Morrissey felt he poured into the making of Vauxhall and I.
Rumored at the time to be his last ever album, Morrissey contacted Steve Lillywhite, the producer who mixed “Ask” while Moz was in The Smiths, to work on the sessions for his final record. Vauxhall and I turned into Morrissey’s opus, a musical triumph from start to finish. This is his The Queen is Dead. After all the condemnation that Moz endured during the early years of his post life after The Smiths, he finally made an album that cemented his legacy in the greatness worth the weight of his talents as a solo artist.
I have to admit, as I have written many times in many reviews and columns, that effect Morrissey and The Smiths had in my young life. Hearing “There’s a Light that Never Goes Out” changed me. But years later I unfortunately lost my faith in Morrissey. This was all due to a show in Austin, Texas that he canceled during his Kill Uncle tour. Even with the powerful glory of Your Arsenal with Morrissey coming to my town during that tour, I didn’t want to see him live. But Vauxhall and I changed that for me.
I have a distinct recollection of playing Vauxhall at a record store I worked in at the time in San Antonio, and connecting to Morrissey and his voice for the first time in years.
“There’s gonna be some trouble
A whole house will need re-building
And everyone I love in the house
Will recline on an analyst’s couch quite soon
Your Father cracks a joke
And in the usual way
Empties the room”
Hearing the lyrics to “Now My Heart is Full” was like hearing a page out of my own life. I kept on listening, and when it came to “Billy Budd,” based on Herman Melville’s novel featuring a title character with a speech impediment, was another song I could relate to. Then I heard the one song that nailed it for me, “The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get.” That made me forgive Morrissey for his past sins.
“The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get” is arguably Morrissey’s best single since “Suedehead.” (It’s the only song he added from his ’90s output on his latest Greatest Hits CD). It starts off with a Johnny Marr-esque guitar and then Morrissey’s eloquent vocal comes on.
“I will be/ In the bar
With my head on the bar
I am now a central part
Of your mind’s landscape
Whether you care
Or do not
Yeah, I’ve made up your mind”
At the time and for years after this song, I was a barfly and this was my theme song, and I love the image of having hope for being ignored by someone that you desire. No matter what happens or how you interact, your impression is everlasting.
Then there’s the mysterious “Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning” which sounds like a song inspired by Kate Chopin’s remarkable story “The Awakening.” And then there’s “Used to be A Sweet Boy,” another song which mirrors the sense I had of myself at the time that I related with Morrissey’s lyrics about someone who’s not the naïve child anymore. And you hear this on the album. Vauxhall is Morrissey confident, in love, sad and in his prime. It’s the true reflection of Morrissey. I think it’s telling that Morrissey and Johnny Marr reconnected just before he made this album. And there were rumors of collaboration between to two but sadly this never came to fruition.
Regardless, with the finale of “Speedway,” the reaches the most powerful and personal statement of his career. “Speedway” is Moz standing up for himself against all the ridicule from his detractors during his life and career. But what I love about “Speedway” is that this is an anthem of empowerment. When he sings, “And when you try to break my spirit, it won’t work, because there’s nothing left to break, anymore.” It sounds like Morrissey’s last hurrah, even if it’s ultimately a pessimistic reading. He was ready to leave us with this thunderous exclamation showing the world his true self and his brilliance one last time.
But it wasn’t to be. Morrissey came back, and is still here. Vauxhall and I remains his best solo output of his career and even inspired Radiohead while they were recording The Bends. Besides the underrated Kill Uncle, this is my favorite Morrissey album. It’s unlike any of his others because it’s not as blatantly sad in nature. Vauxhall is tender, telling and a timeless statement from an artist who’s uncompromising spirit continues to inspire us. Whenever I start to feel any inkling of doubt for Morrissey and his amazing talents, Vauxhall is the album that I put on. Then I remember that this was the one that turned it around for me when I had written him off for the last time. Morrissey said it best when he sang “long may it last.” He endures because it’s his destiny.