The Messenger (Sire)
By Evelyn Salcombe
It’s a curious thing to think that it’s been more than 25 years since seminal Manchester band The Smiths split up and yet it’s only now, in 2013, that Johnny Marr, the musical lynchpin of the band, is releasing his first solo album.
It’s fair to say, though, that he’s been a far from quiet presence in the music industry in the intervening years. In the 1990s, he produced fellow Mancunian indie band Marion’s difficult second album The Program. As a performer, he took part in some awesome collaborations with The Cribs, Modest Mouse and other luminaries such as Jane Birkin before remastering the entire Smiths back catalogue in the last couple of years.
Marr, who now divides his time between Portland, Ore., and Manchester, has perhaps taken so long to come up with the goods because he not only wanted the time to be right, but to also know he was going to bring something fresh and exciting to the world of music. The big question is, has he managed it?
The eagerly awaited album The Messenger was released on February 26 and was preceded by the single “Upstarts” earlier in the month. Perhaps the nicest thing about the music is that, for one of the few times in Marr’s career, you actually get to hear just what a great vocalist he is. It kind of makes you wonder what would have happened if Morrissey had occasionally relinquished control of singing duties from time to time — some of The Smiths’ greatest hits might have had the same lyrical wit, but a harder edged sound.
“Upstarts” is a casually jaunty song and probably the wisest choice for a first single, but at the same time its got a superb jangly indie feel to it with a nice, trebly, staccato guitar sound. When you hear it, you realize that Marr’s guitar work is still up there with the best. Even knocking 50 years old (though looking nowhere near it — he’d easily pass for thirty-something), he’s still got the ability to utterly kick ass and put most of his younger counterparts in the shade. You also wonder whether the lyrics are having a perhaps a little sarcastic dig at the young pretenders to the indie throne (“Upstarts are on their way, Upstarts, have got to pay”).
He’s done the time and served up some amazing music over the years and now it’s his turn to show everyone how it’s done, yet again. No matter, because it’s the perfect way to introduce the album to not only older fans of Johnny’s work, but also newer ones who are perhaps, godammit, too young to remember the ’80s.
“The Messenger” is another outstanding track, with a definitively catchy guitar hook running through it, really upbeat again, driving through with a positive rhythm. Even though it’s a little different-sounding from anything else he’s done before, it’s still markedly Marr. There is something incredibly distinctive about his style of play that means you instantly feel safe when you hear him — it’s like you feel you know where the music is going and where it will take you, but you can still listen out for the odd surprise.
The other notable track is “The Right Thing Right,” which just proves what a versatile musician he is. It’s distinctly different to the other two tracks, an absolute barnstormer, with a cracking bass line and brilliant keyboard part that sort of almost gives it an early Paul Weller/The Jam feel, but just straying short of being an all out mod-fest or deliberate tongue-in-cheek parody. Also, possibly the coolest thing about the track is the fact that it’s possibly the one and only time you’ll ever hear him shout “Whooo!” in an excited manner. This song has also got the benefit of having an uber-catchy chorus which is likely to get stuck in your head for days after just one or two listens.
The album comes at a really good time for Marr; he’s clearly totally up for it and looking remarkably well after adopting a healthier lifestyle over the last few years and renouncing all alcohol. He’s said in interviews that over the years he was portrayed as the total opposite to Morrissey, who was seen as the politically right on, vegetarian, clean living paragon, whilst he was seen as the Jack The Lad; football loving, enjoying drinking and taking drugs. While it’s something that at the time he professes not to have done anything to stop, he’s now the polar opposite.
The simple fact is that whether he’s teetotal or not, it hasn’t affected the music one iota. Marr’s still got it in great big bucketfuls and the new album is really worth an hour or so of your time.