Johnny Marr - The Messenger
Strong solo album from influential guitarist sticking to what he knows best
It seems fitting that in the same month as being crowned Godlike Genius by the NME (not to mention last year’s Q Hero Award ), Johnny Marr takes his first crack at a truly solo solo album to see whether such sparkling claims are justifiable. In the 26 years since splitting from The Smiths he’s worked with a veritable feast of willing musicians, from a recently-revealed jam with Paul McCartney and brief tour with The Pretenders, to more recent collaborations with Modest Mouse and The Cribs. It seems only fair that he step from bit player to lead act.
After such ego-swelling plaudits there’s a pleasing juxtaposition in the album’s underlying concepts, a return to home and roots for the guitarist: ‘When you’re away from your home city, you’re more compelled to write about it. Whether that’s because you’re homesick or you’ve got more objectivity, I don’t know.’
Marr's concerns with nostalgia are reflected in the album's mixed bag of influences -- it rocks from classic rock to Britpop to unashamedly indie with each new track, and previous bandfellows’ clout ring loud. More than anything, however, it’s very familiarly Johnny Marr: guitarist. Music-wise, he sticks to what he knows best - intricate noodling and memorable riffs, supplemented with big solos: a chance for him to really demonstrate what he can do with the instrument. Titular track 'The Messenger' has a happy, dreamlike riff tripping in and out, while 'Lockdown' is a multi-layered slice of indie goodness.
Lyrically, however, it’s hit and miss. 'The underground is overground/the overground will pull you down’ does nothing to liven up the pop punk aspirations of ‘Upstarts’, while 'Sun and Moon' gamely tries to rhyme ‘ambition ‘with ‘television’. This is a shame as the very next track ‘The Crack Up’ feels like a second attempt at the song with a much snappier, simplistic chorus in a song exploring society's obsession with celebrity.
‘New Town Velocity’ is undoubtedly a highlight: with a jangly riff and glimpses of lyrical dexterity, it's one of a couple of tracks - along with 'European Me' - that will make Smiths fans' ears burn. Besides that, it's simply a romantic ode to his past in an album that's increasingly more analytical than personal.
As The Messenger drives on, it becomes apparent that Marr is strongest when revisiting familiar genres. This makes for a mishmash of an album which, while technically stunning throughout, is safe and comfortable. In order for Marr to allow his Godlike Genius to truly shine through, perhaps he needs to take a few more risks.