Johnny Marr quietly embarked on a richly artistic post-Smiths career. While Morrissey was courting controversy and conquering the charts, Marr’s name stayed out of the tabloids as the definitive indie guitarist of 80s revelled in anonymity. Rather than being Johnny Marr of The Smiths, he set about life as Johnny Marr: dexterous gun for hire.
There were big moments (he famously shared the stage with Paul McCartney), but Marr’s post-Smiths career quickly became defined by a series of shrewd selections. Macca was the exception; the rule saw Marr teaming up with the most acclaimed artists in indie rock. He sought out creative virtuosos producing the best material of their careers in the here and now, shunning the cosy embrace of nostalgia.
First, he joined maverick Matt Johnson in The The and produced two challenging but deeply rewarding LPs (1989’s Mind Bomb and 1993’s Dusk). Then, after the turn of the millennium, he re-entered the public eye by joining American alt. icons Modest Mouse – contributing to the hugely successful album We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank. Finally, he introduced himself to a younger generation (and the festival circuit) by helping The Cribs mature on fourth album Ignore The Ignorant. Not bad huh?
After such success in the shadows it almost comes as a shock to see Marr step out into the limelight and tackle primetime television interviews in an attempt to promote his first proper solo album: The Messenger. It is immediately apparent that the last two decades of session work haven’t turned Marr into a natural frontman, but they have helped him to expand his arsenal.
The Messenger is an absolute riot that plays, rather bizarrely, like a sales brochure. Marr’s hooks rarely stand up to scrutiny but across twelve tracks he proves effortlessly that he can master practically any strain of modern indie. “The Right Thing Right” has the instantly accessible opening of a vintage Razorlight hit but soon melts into a panoramic reflection. The jaunty “Word Starts Attack” combines Northern psychedelia with the punch of an Enemy single while “New Town Velocity” proves that he can write (or re-write) a classic Smiths’ riff whenever he darn well pleases. “I Want The Heartbeat”, on the other hand, suggests that this old dog wasn’t opposed to learning a few up-tempo tricks from his time with the chaotic Cribs.
It’s easy to picture Marr strolling up to a potential employer or bandmate, sticking The Messenger on loop, and saying: “So which sound are you after? I can do them all in my sleep”. Unfortunately, that’s where the problem lies. Marr’s silky control of tone and mood ensures that The Messenger hangs together succinctly, but he proves incapable of writing either incisive or, ultimately, memorable lyrics. “European Me” is a sensational arrangement, it should be an indie anthem in waiting, but Marr’s vocals never quite hit their target. He’s too astute to fail outright. His vocals are functional enough, providing another layer of texture to each given track, without supplying the requisite wallop to truly knock his un-expectant audience for six.
The temptation to imagine just how good The Messenger could have been is overpowering. Picture Isaac Brock foaming at the mouth on “I Want A Heartbeat” or Ryan Jarman adding some earnest bite to the joyous bounce of “Generate! Generate!”. It could have been incredible, but, alas, it wasn’t to be. Nevertheless, Marr acquits himself admirably on the sensational title track, which showcases his ability to meld seemingly disparate sounds (buoyant bass, trippy sliding solos, jangling riffs, and soft cooing vocals) into a thoughtful end product.
Johnny Marr was never meant to stand front and centre stage. He’ll never be the next Dylan (or the next Morrissey for that matter), but The Messenger reasserts his status as one of the great guitarists of the modern age: a true chameleon who can adapt to any circumstance and paint on any sonic canvas. Who could begrudge him a few weeks with his name up in lights? He’s not a frontman, but he is one hell of a guitarist.
Buy If: You want to see the breadth of Johnny Marr’s talent.
Skip If: You want some killer hooks and insightful lyrics to go along with your slick riffs and shrewd arrangements.
Best Track: “The Messenger”
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