It may seem surprising that a man who has defined the sound of a genre in one of the most successful bands of all time has taken a whopping 29 years to release his debut record since their split. But, alas, so is the case of Johnny Marr – the affable axeman who has been universally adored by critics and his public for nigh on three decades. He was the quintessentially cool pin-up in the 80s, bedecked with his coiffed hair and polo necks, but now Marr has stepped out of the safety blanket of standing at the side to take centre stage.
Whilst Morrissey continues to tour in exile (well, America) and makes bemusing quotes regarding the monarchy on a monthly basis like a cheated on partner demanding an answer from his former spouse, Marr has never allowed himself to be filled with emotion. With regards to a Smiths reunion, Marr has always remained sure-footed and transparent. His ability to act with such humility when confronted with one of the most explosive implosions in band history is a testament to the idea that, after all this time, Marr may just be one of the coolest men in the industry.
Following successful collaborations with The The, Modest Mouse and indie upstarts The Cribs, Marr has cemented the idea that he is a genius with a brilliant use of avant-garde signature guitar parts. It is refreshing that, after all this time, The Messenger shifts and moulds each song to create a new sound and pushes the record in yet another direction. The record sure beats The Healers’ 2003 effort Bloomslang (an underwhelming pastiche of prog-rock) yet doesn’t quite offer enough to challenge the eloquence of Moz.
Openers ‘The Right Thing Right’ and ‘I Want the Heartbeat’ wear their hearts on their sleeves: two brilliant nods to Northern Soul with a rasping vocal which doesn’t quite show Marr’s ability. ‘Upstarts’ is much better, bathed in Marr’s youthfulness with post-punk basslines and shimmering guitars which act as a battle cry. The lovable nature of Marr is endearing, with plenty of ‘woo!’s in and around the record. Sadly, it is too often undone by shoddy lyricism and forced vocals.
Marr sounds like a dog barking at a car alarm for the majority of the record, shadowing the brilliance he displays with his guitar. The instrumentals are well crafted and you can immerse yourself in them, whilst the vocals are dumb-footed and the lyrics poorly constructed. The album is crying out for a Morrissey, or even a Jarman, who’s lyrics seem to compliment the bodies of music. With musicianship so good, it’s just a shame that the lyrics appear to have been written as a mere afterthought. That said, the record does show promise (and it’s a whole lot better than anything else offered by post-breakup musicians over the last few years with the exception of Noel) and ‘Lockdown’ combines a shoegaze aura with menacing undertones. “I’ve been pushed on for too long” Marr spits in a rare and brutal show of honesty.
‘Generate! Generate!’ sounds too much of a janglian-rock pastiche to impress and the rest of the record follows suit until the breathtaking ‘New Town Velocity’ which sees Marr journey back through his career to adolescence where he “left school for poetry”. The idyllic dreaming of the song is a remarkable feat for a man not known for nostalgia and it will produce a wry smile and teary eye for Smiths fans. The reverb-soaked ‘The Crack Up’ is just as good, with its guitars interwoven to create an atmospheric piece of music. “It don’t crack up, it don’t add up” Marr concedes, and there’s a feeling that audiences may think the same given the patchy body of work they are introduced to here.
Ultimately, it is Marr’s legacy which is his downfall. His ability to craft music remains untouched; the guitars are expertly used with brilliant melodies and a tight musicianship. That said, the vocals are still not up to scratch and you just wonder whether Marr has it cut out to be a frontman. He has a stellar body of work and shows glimpses of his unquestionable ability at times during The Messenger, but there are too few of them. With a career like his though, what difference does it make?
By James Daniel Rodger
Dance Yrself Clean