Johnny Marr appeared to be bruised by the lukewarm reception his first solo album, Boomslang, received when it was released in 2003. The ex-Smiths guitarist put his Healers project to one side and returned to the less pressurized role of the high-profile collaborator. By joining bands for a short period of time – influencing their sound, stealing a bit of the limelight and then moving on – Marr continued to add to his considerable contribution to music without the danger of being in the direct line of fire. Ten years on and Marr has now decided the time is right to again to front his own music under his own name and on his own terms. The result is the The Messenger and while it doesn’t break any new musical ground, it is a record which showcases all his many and considerable talents in one sleeve. If someone other than Johnny Marr were to release an album which appears to contain all the songs they never recorded while in different bands, it may sound like a lazy trawl through a career-spanning songbook of off-cuts. But Johnny Marr has been very choosy in his selection of collaborations throughout his career and as such, the influences at play here merely present on overview of the man’s immense gifts, be it a killer hook or a thrilling riff, which have enhanced the back catalogues of the many artists he has worked with. Rather than stealing from the bands he has graced, The Messenger is full of all the things that made those bands better for having Johnny Marr in them. This is not an identity crisis album, this is a record which shows all Marr’s various colours and hues. He is, like everyone after all, not just one person but a mixture of many.
The Messenger is an album clearly rooted in the musical heritage of Marr’s hometown of Manchester but at the same time it is a collection of songs which plots the diverse course of the guitarist’s odyssey across the landscape of rock since The Smiths split in 1987. The title track has a lilting baggyness to it which conjures up memories of the Madchester melancholia of the Inspiral Carpets and the more emotionally bruised aspects of New Order’s oeuvre. Marr also tips his hat to New Order’s Bernard Sumner on the surprisingly agro-energetic ‘Generate! Generate!’, delivering a verse which wouldn’t be out of place in Sumner’s Bad Lieutenant or indeed his Electronic project back in the late 80s to which Marr lent his expertise. Elsewhere, on ‘Say Demesne’, Marr explores Manchester’s post-punk history, laying an undercurrent of stark orchestration and minimalist styling reminicent of Joy Division under the more life-affirming trademark, cascading riffs. Of course, this being Johnny Marr, there are moments when no other band comes to mind than the mighty Smiths. ‘New Town Velocity’ in particular begins with a shuffling guitar intro which echoes the introduction to ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’ before expanding in scale and production to sound like a sibling of the Strangeways Here We Come material.
Beyond the North West of England, The Messenger is coloured by tricks and tunes that Marr has picked up along the way through his traveling minstrel years. ‘European Me’ has elements of Modest Mouse’s quirkiness while ‘Sun & Moon’ could have been a Cribs song from the days of Marr’s stint with the Jarman family. Marr also plays homage to many of his influences. The clipped, aggressive verses of ‘Generate! Generate!’ clearly take their lead from Gang of Four and Mission of Burma while ‘Upstarts’ could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any of the great angst-rock pop songs of the 1980s. Where The Messenger falls a little flat is in its lyrical content. Marr seems less confident with the words than the music, suggesting that he has always been the quiet cool one for a reason. But even so, he makes a good effort and most of the songs have a decent enough narrative, even if they lack a little finesse or depth. A lyricist like his old partner-in-rhyme Morrissey could really make these tune fly – but there’s little use in holding out for the Bard of Manchester to swagger back into Marr’s life to raise his music to those heavenly heights of old again. Marr himself has recently said that people don’t need the Smiths to reunite for the world to be okay. On much of the evidence here on The Messenger, he’s right. Johnny Marr is back and he’s sounding good. This will do fine. For now…
The Messenger is a great Johnny Marr album and one which confirms all what his many legions of fans already know. That includes his weaknesses as well as his many strengths. It was never going to be the great missing Smiths album or one which could ever fill the mighty hole that band left behind but it is a brave and ballsy return to form – and should prove to be the affirmation he needs to go to the next level as a solo performer. Johnny Marr is an icon and a God-like musician but time will tell if he becomes a great front man. The tour which follows this album will be an important one and if he can handle life alone in the spotlight, his next batch of songs under his own name could be outstanding. There’ll be no more looking cool on the sidelines. It’ll be front and centre from now on.
First published on Puluche.com