By Elini P. Austin
It has been more than 25 years since the Smiths broke up, and guitarist Johnny Marr has finally released a proper solo album.
Growing up in Manchester, England, Johnny Marr cycled through a series of bands before hooking up with singer/lyricist (Steven) Morrissey. With the addition of bassist Andy Roarke and drummer Mike Joyce, the Smiths were born in 1982.
The Smiths music managed to be both innovative and accessible. Marr’s buoyant melodies were a heady brew of Rockabilly, Glam and Punk. A self-proclaimed “celibate homosexual,” Morrissey’s lyrics explored themes of loneliness and alienation. Taking his cues from Oscar Wilde, Morrissey was a Post-Punk poet-provocateur. His vocal style would boomerang between crooning, keening and yodeling.
Johnny Marr’s sharp and memorable melodies provided ballast for Morrissey’s Byronic flights of fancy. Songs like the Bo Diddley-esque, tremolo heavy “How Soon Is Now,” the jangly , homoerotic “This Charming Man,” and the yearning “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want,” were instant classics. The band achieved massive popularity in England and a healthy following in America (despite minimal airplay on MTV or commercial radio).
The Smiths only recorded four full-length albums, (and a plethora of singles) between 1982 and 1987. But along with U2 and R.E.M., the Smiths became one of the most influential band of the 80s.
Following the Smiths break up in late 1987, Morrissey immediately launched an immensely successful solo career. Conversely, Johnny Marr hung back, shunning the spotlight, preferring to play the gunslinger-for-hire.
Throughout the 80s, Marr added color to albums by Talking Heads, Bryan Ferry, the Pretenders and The The. In the early 90s, along with members of New Order and Pet Shop Boys, Marr was part of a quasi Brit-Pop supergroup, Electronic.
Ten years ago, Johnny Marr + The Healers recorded Boomslang. ( The band included Beatles progeny Zak Starkey on drums). Despite positive reviews, the album seemed like a “one-off,” rather than a solo debut.
By 2007, Marr was making his home in Portland, Oregon, lending his Rickenbacker shine to Indie Rock bands like Modest Mouse and the Cribs.
Earlier this year, Marr returned to Great Britain to receive the prestigious GOD LIKE GENIUS Award from venerated British music magazine, New Musical Express. Typically, this sort of award is reserved for entire bands!
Finally, as he fast approaches the age of 50, Johnny Marr has seen fit to release an authentic solo record, The Messenger.
The album kicks into gear with the rollicking rollercoaster ride of “The Right Thing Right.” Guitar riffs slash and soar over a pummeling backbeat as lyrics decry rampant consumerism.
Marr still has the ability to craft effortlessly catchy, multi- dimensional melodies. On “European Me,” Marr’s layered guitars jingle-jangle, chime and ring over an insistent pulse.
Jagged, downstroke riffs pilot “Lockdown,” a sparkling Brit-Pop masterpiece, that conceals a desolate heart… “I know I was born between the angel’s streets and entry’s beats/ And someone’s situation that’s nobody’s home, an education that I still don’t know.”
“The Crack Up” is a withering assessment of the modeling industry: a “live assembly line” inhabited by “glamour auto monkeys.” The tune is shellacked in a snappy 80s groove of robotic rhythms, blustery guitar chords and moody mellotron riffs.
The best tracks here, “Upstarts,” “Generate! Generate! ,” “The Messenger,” and “Say Demesne,” don’t just embrace the Smiths’ legacy , they expand on it.
Both “Upstarts” and “Generate! Generate!” wed angular guitar parts to caffeinated rhythms. The former is a tart chronicle of Marr’s early music career. The latter is a sharp cogitation on left brain vs. right brain: “sensation vs. thinking.”
Lyrically, the title track is a subtle dig at Morrissey’s more grandiose, rigid code of ethics… “I’m seeing in you something, the life you’re wanting takes too long/You seem so heavy.” Here, Marr’s guitar pivots between sunburst arpeggios and slithering, reptilian riffs.
Finally, the action slows for “Say Demesne.” Like the best James Bond themes, the track exudes a spacious grandeur. Darting around the majestic melody, cryptic lyrics offer blunt nonsequiters like “You’re fucked, drunk and your memory’s stuck.”
Other stand out tracks include the Goth/Glam mash up of “Sun And Moon,” the clamorous “I Want The Heartbeat,” which blends hurtling scatter-shot guitar licks with spacey synths. “New Town Velocity” offers sweet acoustic filigrees.
The album closes with the thrilling and chaotic “Word Starts Attack.” A veritable “riff-athon,” showcasing Marr’s ability to swivel between psychedelia and crunchy, whipsaw chord clusters.
On The Messenger, Johnny Marr is ably supported by Guitarist James Doviak, Drummer Andy Knowles and Max James on Bass. Not only did Marr manage rousing solo sets at this year’s Coachella Fest, he also provided skilled support when Modest Mouse took the stage.
An 80s Guitar God on par with the Edge from U2 and Peter Buck from R.E.M., Johnny Marr’s turn in the spotlight was a long time coming, but well worth the wait.
By Elini P. Austin