You only need to hear The Smiths’ very first single Hand In Glove to remember that Morrissey is at his best when the odds are stacked against him. Remember, also, how improbable it seemed when the one ex-Smith who couldn’t play an instrument went higher in the charts with his first solo single than anything his old band had achieved before. In 1994, though, Morrissey wasn’t trying to arrest the world’s indifference to him; neither was he trying to prove himself as a solo artist. In the two years preceding Vauxhall And I, he had been goaded by sections of the music press to explain the meaning of songs like The National Front Disco and his use of the Union Jack as a stage prop. Accustomed to vilification, Morrissey stood his ground. He stayed silent long enough for, among other things, indie opportunists Cornershop to kick-start their own career by setting fire to his picture outside the offices of EMI.
Ironically, he wasn’t the only artist on the label who had taken to flirting with contentious signifiers of Englishness. Blur had muscled their way back into contention wearing Dr Martens and denim drainpipes. But these two artists handled the adverse criticism in very different ways. With their future on EMI far from assured, Blur eagerly explained themselves to anyone who challenged them. By contrast, Morrissey merely marinated in his own sense of betrayal. To what degree is perhaps reflected in the fact that he didn’t believe he would make another record after Vauxhall And I. A few years after its release, he revealed to French magazine Les Inrockuptibles that the album was a preface to “leaving the public domain... I was aware of this end-of-reign atmosphere while recording the album”.
It’s significant that the album’s title is a play on the title of Bruce Robinson’s Withnail And I. When Withnail’s Uncle Monty declares, “As a youth, I used to weep in butcher’s shops”, we sense we are in the same departure lounge of hope and friendship as these songs. Indeed, everything about Morrissey’s fifth solo album, speaks of closure. It was a farewell address to a world that never really understood; or a portent of some unspecified change. “There’s gonna be some trouble,” begins Now My Heart Is Full, “A whole house will need rebuilding/And everyone I love in the house will recline on an analyst’s couch quite soon.” By the time he commences the cathartic roll-call of characters from Brighton Rock – “Dallow, Spicer, Pinky, Cubitt/Every jammy Stressford poet/Loafing oafs in all-night chemists” – he sounds like a man zealously set on dismantling his own myth.
If that was the intention, you couldn’t call Vauxhall And I an unqualified successs. Released in advance of the album, The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get felt like Morrissey had allowed himself one too many northern music hall turns. But context is everything and, in the midst of a beleaguered set of ruminations, it’s one of the few songs which displays a bit of fight. I Am Hated For Loving and Why Don’t You Find Out For Yourself revealed the full extent of his wounds. “Don’t rake up my mistakes,” goes the latter, “I know exactly what they are/And what do YOU do?/You just SIT THERE.” On first inspection, Hold On To Your Friends sounded like an expression of regret at its author’s famed inability to build bridges without later setting fire to them. However, asked about it in 1996, Morrissey pointed out that he wrote the song as advice to those he felt had spurned him in the past.
No matter. Whether or not you identify with the view that the lawn of life is riddled with snakes, Morrissey’s fatalism rarely sounded as palatable as it does on Vauxhall And I. One wonders what Johnny Marr might have thought when he heard co-writer Alain Whyte’s fingers delicately dancing around the fretboard in a way that recalled Marr’s own work on Cemetry Gates. Vauxhall And I is arguably the only time in his post-Smiths career when Morrissey fronted a group which radiated an almost supernatural empathy. Indeed, few performances in the singer’s canon have exceeded their constituent parts as wonderfully as they do on childhood requiem Used To Be A Sweet Boy and the foetal languor of Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning. “The sky became mad with stars/As an outstretched arm slowly disappears,” whispered Morrissey on the latter as a harmonium plays Greek chorus to his exquisite narrative.
But if Vauxhall And I really was to be a grand farewell, what might fill the void? Well, from a distance, it looked as though the long search for a soulmate had finally come to an end. The title, said Morrissey, referred to “a certain person I know who was born and raised in Vauxhall”. He had started going to boxing and football matches. His personal assistant, a handy-looking ex-boxer called Jake, seemed to accompany him everywhere and received “special thanks” on the album credits. The lyrics to Speedway merely intensified the chatter. “All of the rumours keeping me grounded,” he sang on this closing polemic (co-written, like most of the ‘loud’ tracks, with Boz Boorer), “...I never said, I never said that they were completely unfounded.” Hindsight however, proves little by way of answers. Jake disappeared. So, in a sense, did the person who made Vauxhall And I, to be replaced by a more pugilistic, more misanthropic version of his younger self: happier to be loved for hating; seemingly secure in sentiments such as “there are things worse in life than never being someone’s sweetie.” (That’s How People Grow Up, 2009).
Vauxhall And I, however, stands as a fascinating aberration in Morrissey’s solo canon. A moment when it really seemed as though a seismic shift was about to occur in the life of its creator, be it reinvention, retreat or just a ceasing of hostilities. Among its admirers when it was released were Radiohead – themselves undergoing something of a crisis whilst attempting to eclipse the success of Creep. “You can hear that album all over The Bends,” Thom Yorke said in a 2003 interview. “It was all we listened to.” Indeed, it speaks volumes about the quality of the songs on Vauxhall And I that it (at least until his next fatuous pronouncement) rendered the “racist” debate irrelevant at a stroke. Reviews were among the best of his career, but, lest we forget, this was also the year of Parklife and Definitely Maybe. The cultural shift which, ironically, re-legitimised the use of a Union Jack as a stage prop, could find little use for the most emotionally candid album of Morrissey’s career. Which, of course, did wonders for his persecution complex.
Vauxhall And I (20th anniversary expanded reissue) is out now