Manchester veteran JOHNNY MARR has kept himself continuously busy since he left THE SMITHS in 1987. After some collaborative work with THE THE, Marr and Bernard Sumner (JOY DIVISION, NEW ORDER) formed ELECTRONIC in 1989. The duo worked with various guest musicians including Neil Tennant (PET SHOP BOYS) and released three albums in the 1990s. In 2003, Boomslang, the first studio album of JOHNNY MARR + THE HEALERS saw the light of day. Additionally, MARR joined MODEST MOUSE from 2006-09 and has until recently been a full member of indie-rockers THE CRIBS. Consequently, it is no surprise that his first proper solo album, The Messenger, will be released only today, on February 25, in the UK. Now, what does the latest production of the NME Godlike Genius award winner sound like?
In retrospect, MARR’s unofficially first solo album Boomslang (ten out of eleven tracks were written by the man himself) predominantly summarised the two musical experiences he had made shortly before. While the odd length and pace as well as the dark and sinister atmosphere of the songs reminded us of ELECTRONIC’s Twisted Tenderness from 1999, some of his guitar work and song structures complied with the style of OASIS’ Heathen Chemistry. Remarkably enough, The Messenger appears to be completely different in terms of sound and structure. Its songs are shorter, faster, and somewhat brighter.
We immediately get the message that the album carries along – it’s a lesson in focused and classic indie rock. This is why the optimistic opener The Right Thing Right (“I’m on the right thing”, Johnny sings) works so well to introduce the dominant sound of the album and therefore to hint at what we may expect of the following 45 minutes of music. The first track of the album features JOHNNY’s clumsy but acceptable vocals, some fine guitar work of the protagonist including a nice solo in the middle part of the song as well as strong drums that generate a ‘marching beat’. Nonetheless, it is only two tracks later that we get an impression of Marr’s unique ability to create fantastic and emotional melodies. European Me starts off with a SMITHS-like intro, continues with a catchy guitar-driven melody, and culminates in an ever so lovely chorus supported by some female backing vocals. Lockdown, another upbeat track led by a melody most young British indie bands would die for, is reminiscent of early OASIS. In terms of lyrics, MARR is much more personal here and takes us with him to the place and time of his birth.
The title track symbolically opens the second half of Marr’s solo debut as the sound pattern and mood slightly change here. Indeed, The Messenger profits from the musicians melancholic vocal performance and diverse guitar play. Indeed, the overall sound of this particular track appears quite melancholic. However, MARR gives hope that everything’s not lost by announcing “I’m here and I’m ready”. Hence, he starts introducing new elements to his sound. In case of the title track, this means that the middle part of the song includes some animating handclaps.
The energetic Generate! Generate! happens to be unbelievably catchy and features a simple but effective chorus and additionally includes one of MARR’s finest guitar solos on The Messenger. It is followed by one of the two highlights of the album’s second half: Say Demesne has a length of approximately six minutes and is accompanied by a dark and haunting synthesiser melody that perfectly fits MARR’s vocals and strong guitar play. It marks the point where the songwriter luckily diverges from the three to four minutes classic indie rock sound pattern that makes the album sound somewhat repetitive. Ironically, it is another five minutes mid-tempo track that I consider the obvious highlight of The Messenger, that is, New Town Velocity. It is the track probably most reminiscent of the classic sound of THE SMITHS. Thus, it includes everything you would expect from a song written by JOHNNY MARR. New Town Velocity easily features the best melody of The Messenger. It is even that good that it makes us dream MORRISSEY would soon come in and start singing the line “Leave school for poetry”. The guitar solo in the middle part of the song sounds fresh and adorable and leads into the final part of the song where MARR’s vocals are again accompanied by some dreamy female backing vocals which let the whole track come close to pop perfection.
JOHNNY MARR‘s first real solo effort sounds far more ambitious than its cumbersome predecessor Boomslang. In fact, it turns out to be an estimable lesson in classic indie rock and includes some of the musician’s finest melodies (New Town Velocity) and songs (European Me, Say Demesne) to date. MARR’s vocal style has improved over the years and it is especially his guitar play that makes the album worth listening. However, The Messenger suffers from poor lyrics and a somewhat repetitive and occasionally monotonous sound. This gets better when he diverges from the three to four minutes classic indie rock sound pattern, goes back to different song structures, and adds new elements to the tracks. Therefore, the B-Side of the LP turns out to be the more interesting and better part of the album. In the end, The Messenger surely demonstrates a return to form. Last but not least, The Messenger reveals that MARR has always been best with strong musical partners on his side. Therefore, it will be interesting to see whether MARR will remain a solo artist or join/form other/new bands in the future.