Johnny Marr, ‘The Messenger’ – Album Review
It’s no surprise that the first solo album by Johnny Marr sounds like the past quarter century of indie rock boiled down to a dozen tightly structured songs. In addition to his role as guitarist and co-songwriter for the Smiths, Marr has played with everyone from the Pretenders and Talking Heads to Pearl Jam and Modest Mouse since the Smiths disbanded in 1987. ‘The Messenger’ is both summation and validation of his lasting influence.
Marr doesn’t throw any curves; everything you’d expect from one of the most important guitarists of the past 25 year can be found on ‘The Messenger’ in some form: jangly alt-rock, jagged retro pop, a dash of guitar-driven art-rock. Marr’s reliability has kept him continuously employed since the Smiths broke up, and ‘The Messenger’ aims to keep it that way.
Even though Marr has spent the past years living in Portland, Ore., ‘The Messenger’ is very much a British-sounding album. From the Smiths-like landscape of ‘European Me’ to ‘New Town Velocity’’s brooding ‘80s goth, Marr reconnects with his Manchester roots through ringing guitar riffs and the pop sprawl of modern rock’s formative years.
If there’s nothing exactly groundbreaking about the music, at least Marr doesn’t embarrass himself. The best songs here – the hurtling ‘The Right Thing Right,’ ‘Upstarts’’ pure pop explosion and the ghostly title track – sound familiar in the most comforting of ways. Boosting that is Marr’s somewhat ordinary but entirely adequate voice, which recalls any number of Britpop singers who surfaced after the Smiths.
‘The Messenger’ also bares traces of ‘Sister’-era Sonic Youth, especially Lee Ranaldo, whose pop tendencies have always been a little sharper than his bandmates’. And like those guitar heroes (who sprang up on the other side of the ocean around the same time the Smiths started buzzing), Marr contorts his instrument in varying positions on ‘The Messenger’ – from loud, stinging noise rock to soft-strumming folk-influenced pop. It’s not all that different from what he was doing 30 years ago with the Smiths. It’s just enlightened by history now.