Edtior’s note: we liked this album so much we wanted to review it twice.
It’s shocking that it took twenty-five years for Johnny Marr, architect of the Smiths’ inimitable sound and one of the most influential guitarists of all-time, to finally release his solo debut. Since the Smiths’ split in 1987, Marr has not been far from the studio or stage. Initially, he worked with Electronic, and some of his more recent collaborations have included Chrissie Hynde, the Talking Heads, and The The. Unbelievably, the legend even managed to sneak into the lineups of younger groups such as Modest Mouse and The Cribs. Being a nomadic collaborator freed him to experiment with different styles while still benefitting from a group dynamic. And now the time is ripe for Johnny Marr to finally step out into the spotlight as solo artist. This week’s release of ‘The Messenger’ was a long time coming, and it already feels like a classic throwback to the best of British guitar music.
The entire album is distinguished by a driving beat and bass that propels the listener from one end of the album to its conclusion. It lends a freshness and urgency that sounds as relevant in today’s music scene as it would have in 1987. Johnny Marr’s vocals are not showy or effects-laden. Compared to many of the singers with whom he’s worked, his voice might fall flat, but he knows how to play to his strengths. His voice is soft yet assertive, and crystal clear. But let’s concentrate on the music. Marr has evolved from the jangly guitar that was the Smiths’ calling card to incorporate a sort of heavier noise that is a little post-punk. His soundscapes might sound thicker and more layered than his Smiths compositions, but they still impart the same sort of textural intricacy, now backed by a more swelling wall of sound. Every song opens with a guitar intro and many heighten to scorching guitar solos, a definite departure to his slightly more restrained work with the Smiths. The songs are lyrically less personal, almost abstract. The theme of the record seems to be people’s relationships with technology and how that transforms human relationships. It’s a reaction to modern society — the media, crass material culture, and fame are some of the topics touched upon in a bemused sort of way. The subject is explored in a more lighthearted manner than the average dystopian Radioheadesque manifesto. Essentially, what we have here is energetic pop where Marr’s guitar provides the poetry. It’s basically an upbeat protest album impishly giving two fingers to modern culture.
The opening track, ‘The Right Thing Right,’ harkens back to the 1960’s Who with its Northern soul beat. The spiraling guitar completes the scene. I bet this would sound good on the dance floor. Perhaps the song that sounds most like Marr’s earlier work is ‘European Me,’ a celebratory shimmer encouraging listeners to break free from the island mentality and embrace being part of a European community. ‘Upstarts’ is quite rightly the first single from the album. Marr has described this song as a playful protest song inspired by Mancunian student protesters, a tribute to their defiance. It’s a real smasher with a fun sing-along chorus. ‘The Crack Up,’ a look at fame and the modeling industry, opens with a guitar riff reminiscent of a carnival whirligig that morphs into a new wave groove. ‘New Town Velocity’ is both the odd number on the record and, perhaps, its best. A last minute addition, this is Marr’s wistful, heart-on-sleeve moment. The song documents a youthful moment of freedom and rebellion that is instantly relatable to the listener. Even the opening music conveys a feeling of empowerment and the exhilaration that something unforgettable is about to unravel. Marr has perfectly captured that youthful sense of being on the edge of a pivotal, life-changing moment in this lush, meandering pop song reminiscent of the Go-Betweens. This is the sonic equivalent of watching a jaded cityscape rush by your window while you’re speeding across the country on a train.
All in all, ‘The Messenger’ is a solid pop rock record that delivers an energetic confidence from start to finish. Lucky for us, Johnny Marr has promised as many as two follow-ups, so there is more on the horizon for Johnny Marr, the solo artist.