Top positive review
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Quite possibly the ultimate highlight of his career.
on 21 August 2005
This is, quite possibly, the best Morrissey solo album. Indeed, there is stiff competition from 1992's heavier Your Arsenal and then, more recently, You are the Quarry, but still, this 1994 release remains something of a pinnacle within the context of his career.
Vauxhall & I was released during the period in which Morrissey still found favour amongst the record buying public - no doubt clinging to the nostalgia of the Smiths - though it was clear that the music press, particularly those at the NME, were poised for a break towards the retro sounds of Britpop, and the whole Blur versus Oasis debacle in general. This was also the period in which Morrissey found himself accused of racism due to the content of songs like Asian Rut, Bengali in Platforms and the National Front Disco, whilst his flirtation with nationalist iconography, Union Jacks and so-on, made those in the press feel slightly uncomfortable. All these factors now seem silly when looked at a decade on, and merely detracted from the greatness of this album and, in effect, soured a time when Morrissey should have been as celebrated as the likes of Paul Weller and Joe Strummer, etc. Instead, the negative press would lead him to those two difficult albums (Southpaw Grammar and Maladjusted), a bust up with his record label, and eventually, his exile from Britain.
This is a sad fact, since Vauxhall & I remains one of the best albums of the last decade, and is the one that, along with Viva Hate, remains the best introduction to the wonders of Morrissey solo. The album as a whole has a great sound to it, with Morrissey once again writing with guitarists Boz Boorer and Alain Whyte, who here craft a series of intoxicating textures for the singer to couple his wordy and evocative tales of woe. There's also a great sense of cohesion, with Morrissey using the songs to analyse a set theme, whilst sound samples are used to heighten the atmosphere... all supervised by Steve Lillywhite, who here, for the first of three albums with Morrissey, does some of the best production work of his career.
His presence gives the record an almost conceptual flow, though none of the subtle instrumental touches are lost within the mire of creativity; with opening track Now My Heart is Full capturing both Morrissey and the band at something approaching an artistic peak. The melody is stunning, whilst the lyrics give us swathes of that trademark melancholic romanticism, with evocative verses that conjure real images in our mind. There are even nods towards Graham Greene's classic novel Brighton Rock, with the chorus "Dallow, Spicer, Pinkie, Cubitt, all the jammy Stressford poets, loafing oafs in all night chemists... ah, but Bunny I loved you!!"... all adding up to create possibly the greatest four minutes and fifty-seven seconds that Morrissey has ever created.
Meanwhile, Spring Heeled Jim covers a similar subject matter as the previous track (that being street crime and wayward/misspent youth), but with a sonic-soundscape that is as far removed from anything he ever created with the Smiths (...the whole song features non-stop sound-samples from an old British crime film - the title of which escapes me - which helps to give the track an even greater sense of narrative flow!!). Billy Budd is a more up-temp number and feels like a throwback to the harder, Mick Ronson-produced sound of Your Arsenal... certainly at odds with the lulled, distorted melodies found herein, but still, a great track; bringing to mind old classics like We Hate it When Our Friends Become Successful and Glamorous Glue. Both Hold on to Your Friends and Why Don't You Find Out For Yourself offer up that trademark Morrissey sound and, along with one of the album's all-time high-points, I am Hated for Loving, shows Morrissey in a confident, reinvigorated light. The record manages to maintain a dreamlike feeling throughout, but also offers more than enough moments of pure alternative perfection, with big single of the time, The More You Ignore Me the Closer I Get, even managing to dent the UK top ten, as well as offering an early prophetic glimpse of Morrissey's views surrounding the legendary Smiths' court case, with the lyric "I bear more grudges, than lonely high court judges".
Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Downing is an atmospheric downer that shows Morrissey making allusions to progressive-rock (something that would become more pronounced, to an extent, on the next album), whilst mumbling almost spoken-word vocals and lyrics that take their inspiration from writers like Douglas Coupland and Stevie Smith ("it was only a test, but she swam too far against the tide... she deserves all she gets") and can be seen in continuation with the summery, though, at the same time, completely threatening, The Lazy Sunbathers (with the great refrain "please, keep the noise down low..."). This of course primes us for that great closing number, Speedway, which is another harder-sounding track, with guitars that sound like chainsaws (...though I think the desired effect was supposed to be motorcycle engines) and, as ever, some extraordinary lyrics.
As stated before, Vauxhall & I represents Morrissey's best strengths as both a vocal performer and as a lyricist, and features some of his best ever songs. Although, it must be stressed that those just discovering Morrissey following the commercial success of You Are the Quarry should probably try Viva Hate and the compilation Bona Drag first - which show Morrissey working with a style that is closer to the Smiths - those looking for something that elaborates on that sound (not to mention being a little more emotionally expressive) should proceed directly to this masterpiece right here.