There once was a time when Morrissey cared very deeply about how the public's perception of his work had the potential to sink his solo career. "There's going to be some trouble/A whole house will need rebuilding," he sings in the opening lines of "Now My Heart is Full," the introductory track on 1994's Vauxhall and I (a deluxe version celebrating the album's 20th anniversary arrived via Parlophone on Tuesday).
Vauxhall perfectly preserves the difficulties and victories that marked Morrissey's transition from "former frontman" to standalone star, and firmly seals him as the latter. On the whole, the record echoes the ex-Smiths vocalist's anxiety about proclaiming himself a legitimate artist after the band's dissolution (and then again after the din surrounding his difficulties with the group calmed and public speculation about his pursuant success followed suit). It's his fourth post-Smiths release, and the one in which he feels the space between himself as Smith and himself as Solo Act most distinctively. Seven years after what was considered the apex of his career, he was finally free of anything — or anyone — that might buffer his distinctive and fervent artistic vision. With that freedom came a neurosis familiar to anyone who's been untethered from an extensively loathsome job, relationship or similarly oppressive force in their life: Now that I can do what I'd like to…what, exactly, will I do?
As midlife crises go, Vauxhall is an elegant one: Morrissey's vulnerabilities had become more finely tuned. He finally found tangible antagonists to blame for his misery (record-label ogres, the press, the rest of the usual wounded-star coterie of villains), and was eager to lay into them. The predominant emotion on the album? Weariness. Instead of kowtowing to pop ideals in an attempt to redeem his stature, he proffers the gorgeously fed-up "Why Don't You Find Out for Yourself," which is essentially a kiss-off to the entire industry-vulture species. He refuses to temper the exhaustion that comes with being misunderstood on "Now My Heart is Full," singing, "I'm tired again, I tried again/And now my heart is full/And I just can't explain, so I won't even try to." And God knows how he'd tried, over the course of the 17 years he'd been making himself into music.
Vauxhall and I finds Morrissey both reclaiming and satirizing the threadbare critiques of his image and personality. His heart hemorrhages defiantly on "I am Hated for Loving," where he captures the exhaustion of constantly having it ripped from his sleeve by the press: "I am hated for loving/Anonymous call, a poison pen/A brick in the small of the back again/I still don't belong to anyone, I am mine." Instead of withering under the jeers and critiques about his romanticism and sensitivity, Morrissey owns up to it, and even claims uncompromising ownership over himself. When Morrissey is at his greatest, he's disarmingly earnest — which, ironically, is usually what makes him a target in the first place. Vauxhall finds him utterly unwilling to compromise as he digs in his heels as if to say, "If you can't have me as I am, well..."
Given the musical artfulness that framed thisultimatum, listeners were happy to be strong-armed. Case in point: "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get," a single which marked Morrissey's first appearance on the American charts, and his first in the U.K. in five years. "I am now a central part of your mind's landscape/whether you care or do not," he sings. "I've made up your mind." And hasn't he?
In 2014, even listeners who dislike Moz certainly have enough to say about him. Morrissey has been made mythos — his prodigious Autobiography was met with enormous sales and critical praise earlier this year, and he will be the subject of a forthcoming unofficial biopic directed by the Academy Award–nominated filmmaker Mark Gill. Morrissey is also still making music that is staunchly his own, as evidenced by the spoken-word (!) promos for World Peace is None of Your Business, out July 15th on Harvest.
Vauxhall and I was where his fierce autonomy found its stride. The album freezes the moment in time when Morrissey knew he was going to be a spectacle for years to come — and that he chose a life of making art that most closely reflected the architecture of his heart. "Take the easy way and give in, yeah, and let me in," he sings on the single that revived his stature as a public fixture. The world put out its welcome mat, and, 20 years on, he belongs so permanently to everyone because of the music he started making on Vauxhall and I — when he decided he was his own, for keeps.