The air is getting cooler, the leaves are changing color, the days are getting shorter, and Morrissey is singing on my speakers. Try as I might, I just can’t seem to resist his siren call each Fall. There’s always one more lyric to be deciphered, one more inside joke to be investigated, one more b-side to be hunted down. And given the obsession, I was surprised to find out that we’ve really only written about him once, and that was in relation to his role in The Smiths. As towering and exquisite as that group’s output may be, some of us gravitate more toward his solo work, with all its bumps and lumps and detours. Perhaps this is because Morrissey has only become more Morrissey over the years. His self-pitying songs more pitiful, his loneliness more despondent, his angry swipes more petulant (even offensive), his romance more swooning, his celebration of low-life more eccentric. In other words, the Morrissey universe has become more fully drawn. Or maybe there’s just more to work with, as the man has been prolific.
Most true believers consider the high-water mark of his solo career to be 1994’s Vauxhall And I, and I am among them. Critics lament the fact that Morrissey’s musical ambitions seem to have peaked there, that the record has stubbornly served as the blueprint for all his work since. By all accounts, Vauxhall was written, or at least incubated, during a period of prolonged depression and grief. Morrissey has commented on the “odour of retreat, of departure” that the collection evokes. “The album wasn’t as fiery or as passionate as its predecessors but it seemed a bit resigned, which quite pleased me.” Nearly all of the songs are worth writing about, but the ones we will focus on today, briefly, are the stunning bookends, the oddly uplifting opener “Now My Heart Is Full” and the concluding tour-de-force crucifixion of “Speedway.”
Given the dire circumstances that birthed the record, the tone of “Now My Heart Is Full” is a bit surprising – or is it? It finds Morrissey describing, in one of his strongest vocal performances to date, the spiritual rebirth that his dark night of the soul appeared to have led him to. The track has a strong dawn-like quality, of nighttime slowly swelling into daybreak. He remarked at the time:
[The song] has a sense of jubilant exhaustion with looking over one’s shoulder all the time and draining one’s reference points. I have perhaps overtapped my sources and now all that is over basically. I have a vast record and video and tape collection but I look at it now in a different light. It’s no longer something I feel I need to be embroiled in night and day. I have realized that the past is actually over, and it is a great relief to me.
So whatever it is he went through, it was not only powerful enough for Morrissey – who is rarely, if ever, at a loss for words – to have trouble articulating (“I can’t explain/So I won’t even try to”), the result appears to have been some actual peace or contentment, short-lived perhaps but no less real. “Now My Heart Is Full” is a resurrection song that ranks up there with the best of them; it may even be my favorite Morrissey song of all time. Yet as great as it is, the real reason for writing about Vauxhall and I on Mockingbird is the album closer, “Speedway.” In his invaluable Mozipedia, Simon Goddard puts it this way,
Self-martyrdom has always been a fundamental trait of Morrissey’s writing, but never has he nailed himself to a proverbial cross with such sacrificial drama as on ‘Speedway,’ Vauxhall’s soul-baring, near-biblical finale which by virtue of its analytical frankness ranks as one of his most insightful and therefore most essential songs of all time.
Indeed, “Speedway” captures one of the Morrissey paradoxes perfectly: he is both martyr and martyrer, persecuted and persecuting, victim and victimizer. The only person he loathes more than himself is everyone else. Which is merely to say he is human (and he needs to be loved!). But here he takes it a step further: he is justified by his unjustifiable-ness. As the timeless chorus goes: “All of the rumors keeping me grounded/I never said, I never said/That they were completely unfounded.” The Christian in me can’t help but admire the confessiorial poetry of it all, the refreshing honesty of a broken disposition. In a sea of self-justification, Morrissey offers a more profound view of himself, and that’s enough to make us love him:
And all those lies
written lies, twisted lies
well, they weren’t lies
They weren’t lies
They weren’t lies
Not only are these words jarring in their honesty, they are funny! Of course, a more skeptical take might be that he is ingeniously flipping rock bravado on its head and in the process, actually exalting himself to greater heights. Lord knows he has been one to fool with religious imagery. Just watch the video, where the lyrics inspire a stampede of worshipers on stage:
As if to drive the messianic imagery home, Morrissey closes with the following assurance:
I’ve always been true to you
in my own strange way
I’ve always been true to you
in my own sick way
I’ll always stay true to you
Is he exploiting his own confession? Or is he embracing his guilt and hypocrisy and discovering a kind of love that flows out of repentance? Or maybe he’s winding us up and playing with his image? Or perhaps he’s describing a loyalty that supersedes personal shortcomings? The kind that you sometimes find when you’ve been forced to pull over on life’s, you know, speedway? I honestly don’t know the answer. And I’m not sure I would want to. The raised eyebrows give the song its life! (The chainsaw doesn’t hurt, either). The questions and contradictions are precisely what make it such a great piece of work. It wouldn’t Morrissey otherwise. Viva le Moz!
P.S. Just for good measure, if I were a betting man, I’d put some money on the following playing a role Morrissey’s choice of title: