Review: Johnny Marr – ‘The Messenger’

By Live4ever - Posted on 11 Feb 2013 at 6:31am

Before we go any further, this isn’t an album by The Smiths.

No matter what, any new music released by Manchester’s greatest ever guitarist and all round nice guy will always be held up against the stunning legacy of the band he left aged only 24.

That won’t be happening here. All clear on that? Good. Glad we’re all in agreement.

The Messenger‘ then, is billed as Johnny Marr’s first fully solo album – which means that tellingly, Marr is quietly distancing himself from the boorish, sub-Oasis swamp rock of 2003’s ‘Boomslang‘ (he’s right to do so of course, it’s crap). Pleasingly, we instead find that Marr is now as comfortable with the Johnny of today as he is embracing of the Johnny of yesteryear.

He opens up with ‘The Right Thing Right‘, its title itself indicative of Marr’s inherently positive and amiable personality, perhaps also of his drive and fastidious attention to detail during the recording process. These days, he can be found attending some of Manchester’s Northern Soul all nighters, and it’s obviously seeped into this song as a four to the floor stomper of good vibes and energy pounds away relentlessly.  The simplicity of a drum, bass and guitar line up adds a new wave element to the mixture, and hints that during the recording of this album, Marr had one eye on translating this set of songs to the stage and the dance floor.

It’s not the only track that’s received a liberal sprinkling of Northern Soul’s talcum powder, as first single ‘Upstarts‘ also combines it with major key motorik merriment. Marr chronicles the recent riots as a result of his mirth at hearing one looting interviewee quaintly refer to herself as indeed, an upstart. However, it’s fair to say that the song is an odd choice for a lead single, melodically it’s not the most immediate track in the collection, but then again it provides a gateway for those that still erroneously dub him a jangling guitarist, and paints a (vulgar… sorry, couldn’t resist) picture of what else is on offer.

It seems strange to get so far into’ The Messenger’ without discussing Marr’s fretwork such is his dazzling dexterity and vivacious virtuosity, but that is the essence of what makes it so great. It’s unobtrusive, supports the greater whole whilst still being pretty darn technical. His current phase finds him toting an overdriven white Jaguar as opposed to his clean Rickenbackers of yesteryear but of course, there’s always some 12-string magic ringing around the corner.

One such track is ‘Lockdown‘, which finds Marr paying tribute to a band he’s linked up with in the past, as he twangs a top E string towards Best Coast’s echo chamber of fuzzed up girl group simplicity. And it’s one of the strongest tracks here. A slow burner yes, but one to come back to, even if just to enjoy his uncanny aping of Bethany Consentino’s vocal delivery.

And vocally, Marr is surprisingly strong. Despite what one may call a ‘guitarist’s range’, i.e. one that’s on the limited side of things, he is confident and remarkably flexible, be it holding on to notes or whooping gleeful exaltations. Marr is enjoying himself so immensely, one has to wonder what stopped him from making the move centre stage earlier – or more accurately, why not more often during his career.

Meanwhile, the album’s title track is a melting pot of his Cribs-adorning chords, Modest Mouse rhythms and some shoegaze-approving spaciousness and mystery, surely a future single. There comes a slight lull in proceedings that lasts a few tracks after ‘Generate! Generate!‘ and every now and then some of Marr’s lyrics can feel a little clunky, notably his chanting of “technology, technology” on the post-punk pandemonium of ‘I Want The Heartbeat‘, but overall ‘The Messenger’ is a good, solid album that at times really soars.

Two of the finest moments on the album hark back to two of his old bands. One is ‘European Me‘, which at a push yes, does almost have the layered charm and wistful acoustic strumming beneath some crystalline riffery found on say, ‘There Is A Light…’. The other is the album’s penultimate track ‘New Town Velocity‘. Here Marr channels the spirit of Bernard Sumner’s vocal a la Electronic and neatly frames his own Smiths-ian six string magic with synthesised strings lifted straight from the sun-kissed strum of ‘Getting Away With It‘.

‘The Messenger’ exudes a truly modern sound that is seemingly the resulting amalgamation of all his previous work and as he rifles through his stockpile of riffs with abandon, it seems like an infectiously exuberant exercise in having simple, old-fashioned fun.

So yes, there are quite a few nods in the direction of his old bands and past collaborations. And yes, that does include some of his work with the young Steven Patrick and co. But that’s merely a hint of what’s gone before; ‘The Messenger’ is a whole new thing. It’s less melancholic, is more spiky and much more upbeat.

It’s the Marr of the here and now.

(Craig Sergeant)

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