Nobody in pop music today understands the power of implication better than Morrissey.
Spend some time with the singer's newest album, "Vauxhall and I" (Sire 45451), and you may begin to think you know a lot about him -- his thoughts on love, his feelings about society, his view of the music business and his taste in sexual partners.
Yet as soon as you try to put your finger on a lyric that would support those impressions, Morrissey's meaning dodges away like quicksilver. It's almost as if he's more interested in suggesting content through mood and music than in making any sort of specific lyrical statement.
Given how gorgeous the sound of "Vauxhall and I" is, it's hard to blame him for taking that tack. Instead of the pumped-up guitars and stylized rockabilly licks that flavored his last studio effort, "Your Arsenal," this album goes for a sound that's lush and dreamy, with softer edges and a richer sense of texture.
Credit for much of that lies with Morrissey's band and producer Steve Lillywhite. Rather than stick with a standard rock approach, Lillywhite and the band try almost anything, from the tuneful guitar pop of "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get" to the almost orchestral splendor of "Now My Heart Is Full," which builds from a portentous intro of throbbing bass and ghostly guitar to a finale that's nearly Spectorian in its sonic density. The album is also broadened by additional instrumental colors -- melancholy clarinets for "Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning," a whisper of marimba on "Why Don't You Find Out for Yourself," and a clunky music hall piano at the end of "Used to Be a Sweet Boy."
But by far the most seductive element in this luxurious sound is Morrissey himself. There's a stunning confidence to his crooning here, one that lends resonance to his every vocal flourish and yet seems totally devoted to the melody at hand. Moreover, there's a subtlety to his phrasing that seems to underscore the emotional nuances of his lyrics, putting the feelings beneath these songs in bold relief.
If only the words themselves were so explicit!
Take "Used to Be A Sweet Boy." Between the melody's dreamy, waltz-time cadences and Morrissey's wistful croon, it's easy to assume that the nostalgia the music evokes is for the singer's rTC own childhood, when he "used to be a sweet boy" until "something went wrong."
What throws that reading into doubt is the fact that Morrissey avoids personal pronouns until the end of the song, when he sings "I'm not to blame/ But something went wrong." Suddenly, a sense of distance creeps into the narrative, and it becomes hard to say whether Morrissey meant "I used to be a sweet boy," or "He used to be a sweet boy" -- the song makes sense either way. We may have our suspicions, but he just doesn't tell us enough to know for sure.
Then there's the matter of what, exactly, went "wrong." Typically, Morrissey doesn't say, but the songs preceding "Used to Be a Sweet Boy" suggest that what "went wrong" with the lad was his sexual orientation. In other words, the "sweet boy" grew up to be a gay man.
Morrissey isn't being judgmental, mind. True, "Vauxhall and I" is full of songs describing how gays are held apart from "decent" society, from the "rain-coated lovers' brothers" of "Now My Heart Is Full" to the protagonist in "Billy Budd" who tells Billy that he was turned down for a job "and it's all because of us."
"Hated for Loving," though, makes it clear which side Morrissey is on: "I am hated for loving," he sings. "I am haunted for wanting." In other words, he'll say where his affections lie, but anything more personal than that is for him to know, and his listeners to wonder about.
That's Morrissey, though, ever the coquette. As the (possibly press-bashing) "Speedway" puts it, "All of the rumors keeping me grounded/I never said they were completely unfounded." But so long as he keeps hinting with songs as inviting as these, his listeners will happily keep guessing.
To hear excerpts from Morrissey's "Vauxhall and I," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four digit code 6130 after you hear the greeting.