Morrissey’s 1994 album Vauxhall & I may contain “The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get,” the closest Moz ever got to a US Top 40 hit, but otherwise it’s the famously overstated singer’s most subtle album. Sandwiched between ’92′s rocking-but-accessible Your Arsenal and ’95′s overtly assaultive Southpaw Grammar, Morrissey’s fourth album is instead reflective, and indirectly mournful. Shortly before its creation, Arsenal producer (and former David Bowie guitarist) Mick Ronson fought a losing battle with cancer, while both longtime Smiths/Morrissey video director Tim Broad and manager Nigel Thomas also died. Whereas most Morrissey albums are barbed with social and political commentary, Vauxhall is almost always heartfelt. On “Hold on to Your Friends,” this impulsive, volatile soul is not just sentimental; here he’s practically sensible.
A UK chart-topper and Morrissey’s first U.S. Top 20 entry, Vauxhall is the initial and most successful of the three Moz discs recorded with Steve Lillywhite, a key New Wave architect via productions for U2, Simple Minds, Big Country, XTC and many others. Lillywhite helps achieve a lush but detailed sound almost exclusively through guitars genuinely far softer than is typical from Morrissey’s songwriting collaborators Alain Whyte and Boz Boorer. Although the latter gave him the indelible opening guitar riff of “Ignore Me,” much of the rest doesn’t rank with Moz’s catchiest work. Nevertheless, it’s rich with passion, particularly on album closer “Speedway,” which climaxes with the massive gated drums Lillywhite pioneered.
Although Vauxhall gets a sensitive sonic upgrade, the main attraction is a previously unreleased ’95 set recorded at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane that’s far more aggressive. It’s generally faster too, and not just on tracks like “Billy Budd” and “Spring-Heeled Jim.” Moz and band rip through the “London,” a B-side of the Smiths, whose catalog their leader had studiously avoided. This intensity spills into the audience: During “You’re the One for Me, Fatty,” the performer omits most lyrics, likely from being fan-handled: Hear him conclude, “That was very enjoyable” between gasps for air.
Not everything gets this rash: “We’ll Let You Know” eclipses the deceptive gentleness of its Arsenal original and “Moon River” — yes, the Johnny Mercer/Henry Mancini standard, a then-recent B-side — is rendered almost straightforwardly. Not even the canned sound effects of a woman sobbing can upstage Moz’s tenderness.