THAT JOHNNY MARR, HE’S GOT THE TWENTIETH CENTURY BREATHING DOWN HIS NECK… HIS (SORT-OF) DEBUT SOLO ALBUM IS RELEASED TOMORROW AND WHILE IT WORKS ON ITS OWN TERMS, THE LIKELIHOOD OF IT BEING RECEIVED BY ANYONE, ANYWHERE, ON THOSE TERMS IS VIRTUALLY NIL. YOU KNOW WHY.
There’s a moment – there are several, actually – during THE MESSENGER when an inevitable thought occurs. You know which one.
Despite serving time as high calibre gun for hire songwriting partner and guitar player to any number of notable artists during the last quarter century, and despite creatively satisfying stints as a paid up member of Electronic, The Cribs, Modest Mouse and The The, there’s no doubting it’s the wall of sound Marr built for The Smiths in the mid-1980s that this album will be held up against, and it’s the “someone” shaped hole in it that he’ll be pushed through. Unfair, but not entirely unexpected. His old songwriting foil has had to deal with the After The Beatles problem for years, each album and tour praised but undermined by both “isn’t he doing well since the divorce?” and “they really ought to get back together”.
Despite continued resistance to his particularly heavyweight baggage, THE MESSENGER finds Marr, surprisingly, not so much trying to lose it on the carousel as checking it in. There are moments which seem to deliberately pass through much of his work elsewhere, so it’s fitting that – a charming guitar motif here, a handsome chord there – the sound of The Smiths occasionally goes by. But such a sad sound. Ultimately, it serves only as a ghost marker, confirmation that Marr’s art was impenetrably strong when expressed in that group yet has been short of such transcendance since.
Here, THE RIGHT THING RIGHT begins with a nod to STOP ME IF YOU THINK YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE, The Who-ish power chords and flailing drums of the first few seconds spiralling out into nifty backbeat mod-soul, with the bass-piano motif from The Teardrop Explodes’ REWARD thrown in. The perfect pop of EUROPEAN ME sees the prettiest RUSHOLME RUFFIANS sent abroad on an exchange trip and spitting over the edge of a ferry, NEW TOWN VELOCITY is WELL I WONDERously cool, while SUN AND MOON and GENERATE! GENERATE! pulse with new wave charm and the title track could be an Electronic outtake.
“Problem” is perhaps too strong a word… But the problem with this new Marr album might be ours – the vocals on THE MESSENGER never veer close to what the heart instinctively expects, only ever doing what the head knows they’re going to do. They’re always passable, if a little self conscious at times, and stronger than expected (often reminiscent of Electronic partner Bernard Sumner) but, despite best efforts to push himself out to his limits, ultimately Marr’s voice is weak and his lyrics are prosaic when set to the splendours of his guitar.
The music, deftly mixed (though it does seem to suffer from digital overcompression), is an impeccably played summation of Marr’s contribution to the greater good. As such, THE MESSENGER is far more interesting than anything from 2003’s slabbish BOOMSLANG, released as Johnny Marr & The Healers, and there are enough embers of greatness here to keep the fairly interested interested but there’s also only half a spark. No-one of tasteful aesthetic and romantic outlook would truly want The Smiths to reignite, but the ultimate impression will not be shifted: Marr is best employed as the pyrotechnician of someone else’s big bang. Whoever that someone may be, he should probably go meet them at the chemistry gates.