Johnny Marr - The Messenger

Godlike Genius Johnny Marr releases solo album. Fanfare, trumpets, flags, British pride! Without over-selling the man himself, he is a brit-pop brit-rock indie pop icon, and one hell of a guitarist. But can he sing? Is he a solo artist? Can he create that jangly album we've been craving since The Smiths enticed and entranced us?

Well, yes and no. Since literally creating a seemingly perpetually enduring sound Marr has entered himself inside a Johnny Cash song. That is to say he's been all over the bloody place. Electronic released one stunning album but subsequently failed to truly deliver on their promise. It also saw Marr distance himself, whether by design or natural causes, from any residual Smiths sound. A brilliant mix between New Order, Pet Shop Boys and Kraftwerk, Marr injected his trademark jangle where he could and it always enriched the sound, but it was an interesting side note for a truly gifted guitarist.

Further projects included The The, who developed a more ecletic guitar sound, The Cribs who are beautifull brit-rock, and of course Modest Mouse, although he did join them after their stunning, brooding late 90s - early 00s stage. All of these experiences served to expand the mind and the talents of the self-confessed guitar obsessed Marr. Speaking to Rolling Stone he explained his childhood as one where he took in all sources he could during his development. He wanted to be a purist, someone who's sound was instantly recognisable. Well before a solo project was even thought of he had achieved this goal.

So The Messenger may surprise some, but it's almost 20 years overdue. Does this reduce its impact? Possibly. Despite that, this is the closest you're going to get to new Smiths, and that in itself guarantees success and enjoyment. The album does not disappoint, not on the whole. Marr manages to provide that effortless energy he's brought to all of his projects, and the closest example I can find to his inherent gift of rhythm is David Bowie's more upbeat work on Reality. In Marr's own words, he isn't trying to reinvent the wheel, but he has crafted some catchy alternative music.

Lead off track The Right Thing Right is a lovely clash of pounding drums and Marr's uncomplicated guitar rhythm. I Want The Heartbeat then follows this up with an immediately darker sensibility that expands in to a relentless pursuit of melody. Marr disguises a standard classic rock lyrical approach (Get me your whole machine, technology, technology) by layering fleeting but damaging guitar licks that appear as if out of thin air and disappear just as quickly, distracting and drawing attention in 4 or 5 different directions at once. It's an energetic affair and a shrewd technique to keep the music engaging.

European Me delivers one for The Smiths diehards, a frenetic opening breaks open in to this giant grassy field of jangly, highly plucked riffs that mimmick the sun dawning on the song. The whole thing settles beautifully in to such a familiar rhythm you're sure he's released this track before. And he did, and it was iconic. But that takes nothing away from the warmth it generates. Marr deals with isolation and the strength of mind and friendship, 'And losing an empty station / We can be safe from this', offering solace and reassurance to a central figure, either himself or even just an acquaintance. Again, the lyrical content strikes as slightly vague, there is no Morissey depth and desperate emotion but that's ok. It's 2013, and this is Johnny Marr, no-one else.

The rest of the album burbles along with no major hurdles. Say Demesne is a more menacing beast, a down-beat riff plays itself out over the course of 5 minutes as Marr attempts to drag us in to a tale of debauchery and desperation in the search of (what else?) love. It's areas like this where the record is at its weakest. Marr can create the perfect atmosphere, and his previous work is a testament to that, but lyrically and vocally he struggles to join all the dots and complete the song. Upstarts, for example, is a clumsy single. He misses the point of the track, which again has a brilliant rhythm and feel to it, but singing ' Oooh, I see this running down Defiance comes, oooh The underground is overground / The overground will pull you down' is tame and less than impactful. The chorus is lacklustre, the song never surges past second gear and it's a middle of the road song.

5.5/10  Modern Britain needs and deserves more than this from Johnny Marr. It could be that his shortcomings as a front-man and sole lyricist and vocalist are terminal, and if this is the case I urge him to seek out a viable frontman, Slash style. Because Marr still has it. His brilliance as a guitarist shines through on every track, he creates lovely and soothing atmospheres the listener can blissfully get lost in. However that is all. Don't dig any deeper. The lyrics and the vocals drag this down unfortunately.
Best Tracks: European Me, The Right Thing Right, New Town Velocity

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