Grab your Telecaster and get in front of a full-length mirror: Johnny Marr has made an album to strut to
It’s not often a musician gets to make a debut album at the age of 49, but then Johnny Marr has always done things his own way. In the 25 years since The Smiths’ demise, the guitarist has been a gun-for-hire on countless sessions and brought his own inimitable flair to a number of high profile groups (look out for our interview with him later this week, in which he discusses his brief time with Paul McCartney’s band). He has stacked plenty of quality onto the gilded collection of Smiths recordings he made in his very early 20s, but always under another name, never as a solo artist in his own right. Out this month, The Messenger shines his name up in lights in a way he will not be accustomed to.
If he’s feeling the pressure, it doesn’t show. The Messenger is a confident album that draws on his 30 years behind the mixing desk, with a collection of driven songs to hang the typically layered arrangements around. Certain comparisons are inevitable, but he almost welcomes them. As he told this reviewer, this album is Johnny Marr doing what he does best: being Johnny Marr. Inevitably, then, the result feels fairly effortless, and fans of his various appearances and guises can rest assured that the faces of Johnny Marr are all well-represented here. Anyone worried that this is a guitarist’s album (as opposed to a band album, or a song-orientated album) need only remember that Marr is arguably the most tasteful player of his generation. You really are in good hands.
Album opener “The Right Thing Right” sets the mood perfectly. A piece of pristine pop in which aesthetics are everything (guitars only swoop when they’re buried in the mix, more an atmosphere than a pyrotechnic display), it’s set to a posturing stomp that refuses to let up through most of the album, and almost demands that you strap on a Telecaster and get in front of a full-length mirror. Highlights include the title track, already available as a single, as well as “European Me”, a wonderfully lush production that opens with the kind of machine-gun strumming that Marr specialized in back in the days of “Bigmouth Strikes Again” and “What She Said”. However, it is “New Town Velocity” that really grabs the attention, proving in five sweet minutes that nobody does cascading, waterfall guitar lines like Johnny Marr (not counting his son, Nile, who fires off impressive counterpoint lines in the other ear while his dad re-visits the melancholic heights of his youth).
If there’s one problem with The Messenger, it’s the voice – not so much the quality of it or the performance, but the manner in which it occasionally appears buried in the mix, making the lyrics very difficult to catch. This is a shame, mainly because so many of the lines seem ideal for a live audience to make good with. You can imagine the barked choruses of “Generate! Generate!” or “Word Starts Attack” being fed right back to the band onstage, but without a lyric sheet, it’s not going to be the communal experience it could be. His former partner is known for displaying large, iconic backdrop images at his gigs – perhaps Marr can bring an overhead projector and a copy of his words.
An amateur psychologist might suggest that this lack of clarity points to a confidence problem, but that would not be in keeping with the swagger of the rest of the album, some of which can rightly be called Johnny Marr’s best work in years.