Johnny Marr – The Messenger

Johnny Marr - The MessengerJohnny Marr
The Messenger
[Sire / ADA, 2013]
Tom Lundregan, March 19, 2013
Buy: Direct
Listen: “The Messenger”

The Smiths broke up a quarter century ago, and guitarist Johnny Marr has not spent these past 25 years resting on his laurels as a key member of one of the most influential bands ever.  Since 1987 he has co-founded the alternative band Electronic; been a key member of The The, Modest Mouse, and the Cribs, and has played a role in recording or touring with the Pretenders, Talking Heads and Pet Shop Boys.  Marr could even be said to have already released a solo album with his lead spot in Johnny Marr and the Healers, but he has previously avowed that the Healers is a band of which he is a part.  The Messenger, then, is Marr’s first true solo effort–where the songs, the guitar, the vocals, the engineering are his.

Marr, who will turn fifty this year, seems to have one foot entrenched in 1984 and another one squarely in 1997.  The fact that he doesn’t have any feet planted in 2013 seems to be a conscious move by Marr.  He’s repeatedly said that his new album, The Messenger, is not meant to be a huge step forward, but is in fact nostalgic.  To that point, he recently moved from Portland, Oregon back to his native England to put The Messenger together.  While nostalgic in style, the album is not a melancholic affair–it evokes The Smiths, but is not even remotely trying to be the next Meat is Murder or The Queen is Dead.

The album starts with “The Right Thing Right”–and it says to the listeners–“Whoa hey, listen up, new music from the Smiths!”  But then the vocals kick in, and it’s clear that Steven Patrick Morrissey will not be involved in this affair.  On the one hand, Marr should not be faulted for singing on his own solo effort, but on the other, you want to remind him that it’s not his strong suit so off-key “whoo”s are probably better left on the production floor.  In fact, the songs that succeed the most on The Messsenger are those that shroud Marr’s vocals in reverb or chorus effects.

Marr has always been one of the best at leading a song with a catchy, twangy guitar hook and that does not change on The Messenger.  “I Want the Heartbeat” has a winding guitar accompanied by a quick drumbeat as it evokes New Wave kids doing a Molly Ringwald–“We Are Not Alone” dance scene (that’s a Breakfast Club reference for you youngsters).  “European Me” also opens with a great bright, breezy guitar sound, but while Marr isn’t a terrible singer, his stretching of notes to the point of his voice breaking detracts from the pleasing aesthetic of that signature guitar.

The Messenger’s title track is a standout.  It has very few lyrics, a catchy tempo, some random “Rock the Casbah” one-clap, two-clap punctuation, and it all works here. On “Generate! Generate!” Marr takes the only “-ate” words not used in INXS’ “Mediate” and turns the song into an urgent anthem.  While largely showing off Marr’s love of electronic sound and a more frolicsome jangle to his guitar sound, The Messenger departs from this on “Sun & Moon.”  Here is Marr as punk rocker, his time with the Cribs and his love of the Stooges all appearing to form an uptempo, harder guitar sound where, oddly, Marr’s voice works best. “New Town Velocity” starts with a more acoustic strumming, sounding a little like the Church’s “Under the Milky Way.”  There’s promise in the lyrics – is it a memoir discussing his career (“Left home a mystery / Leave school for home retreat / I say goodbye to harmony”) or a reminiscent love song (“When we face that July dawn / The uniforms one on one, no run / We chased that summer down”)?  But ultimately, the song wilts under the timidity of Marr’s vocals once again.

Without question, Johnny Marr is one of the most influential guitarists in music over the past 40 years.  He has developed a canon of work that could stand on its own even if he had never been in the Smiths.  Marr is not a traditional “sideman” who should have always stayed in the shadow or stuck to guitar only for the rest of his career.  But leading the band doesn’t always mean providing all the vocals – and it can’t help but be wondered if The Messenger would have been an even better album with some assistance at the microphone.  Although it’s clear from some of the good songs and quality guitar work here that The Messenger still stands on its own as a worthwhile, if not classic, entry in Marr’s canon.