Review: Johnny Marr – ‘Playland’

jmFor some people of a certain age – predominantly male – there are a number of acts of heresy that can lead to the total excommunication from an entire social circle.

One of these is openly admitting to enjoying The X Factor, another is coveting another man’s wife (unless of course she wants to be coveted), but the most heinous of all is the crime of not worshiping Johnny Marr.

Not like he needs an introduction, but as well as making spiritual gee-tar whoopee with THAT band, Saint Johnny has also added that certain something to The The, Electronic, Modest Mouse and The Cribs, along with guesting on dozens of other top brass laden projects in between.

Live, he’s the coolest Uncle/Dad/brother you never had, playing so effortlessly that it’s almost impossible to imagine him ever maintaining even a shred of self-doubt, wisecracking away at the expense of the establishment whilst other rockin’ rebels usually just wind up as one big pile of awkward embarrassment.

All things considered, we reckon there are few artists who better embody the spirit of good old Cool Britannia, his combined feats making him a national hero whose work should in a fair world be part of the National Curriculum.

There was however one minor problem. Marr’s first ever proudly solo venture – discounting the laboured chug of his 2003 effort with The Healers – was, well, OK. Expectation smothered any chance it had to be the stuff of legend long before it arrived of course, but ‘The Messenger‘ was the sound of a man entirely comfortable with the songwriting process but unable to unlock the tools which could turn his music from good to great. There were still moments of course – the title track’s streetwise, pristine take on the early 90’s scene of which his home town was the Alma Mater, the impudent swagger of ‘The Crack Up‘, yet the catalyst that would turn glimpses into genius was somehow missing. Now, ‘Playland‘ arrives with the job of cementing him as a songwriter as equally worthy of respect as J. Marr, guitarist.

Almost certainly not setting goals for himself, you feel that this time round he’s used the experience to inform which elements need tweaking. The urgency of opener ‘Back In The Box‘ is testament to this, just over three minutes of gutsy low end and a trademark riff, a song which attempts to galvanise the listener by sheer kinetic energy.  Like one of his old bands he can do pop too, and although ‘Easy Money‘ is less subtle than anything conjured up with his old not-so pals, its pulsing indie disco undertow and huge chorus are as blatantly inclusive as anything Marr’s been involved in from the last two decades.

Most of ‘Playland’ grooves on skillful evolution, the work of a man who was genuinely listening to what was going on around him whilst playing with rock’s glitterati, undertaking the role of gun for hire with his ear cocked and notebook tacitly in hand. Cherry-picking it may be, but ‘Dynamo‘ sounds a bit like The Stone Roses (the good bit) with New Order‘s Bernard Sumner on vocals, whilst the title track has all the chunky anthemic nouse of James Dean Bradfield, less the angst.

‘Playland’s most impressive quality though is its creator’s refreshing set of scruples. Usually artists of his vintage are queuing up to get their mates into the studio for a jam or two – and you imagine JM’s speed dial is a thing to behold – only for the results to end up as turgid compromise. Here though there’s little opportunity for reflection or anyone else to come into the picture, a breathless ‘Boys Kill Boys‘ and the beatific melodies of ‘The Trap‘ only underlining the conscious effort being made to keep total control of the end result.

With the realisation that the fetters are off and that victory over our prejudices is a matter of time, at ‘Playland’s business end he delivers a classic one-two to always leave ’em wanting more; penultimately on ‘This Tension‘, which mines the raincoat brigade ennui of The Cure and The Teardrop Explodes, whilst closer ‘Little King‘ hands Miles Kane his skinny jeaned upstart ass back to him on plate.

After the dust has settled, perspective lends itself to the realisation that for some artists just being perceived as cool would be enough – god knows U2 have just pissed off half the planet trying to do it – but for Johnny Marr it simply isn’t enough. He may well never escape the crushing event horizon of being a former Smith, but his second album breaks new ground and proves the point about dogs and tricks you think he wanted to make more forcefully than his avuncular image may allow. Set in that context, ‘Playland’ is more than satisfying enough.

That aside, it’s still however not acceptable to enjoy The X Factor.

(Andy Peterson)

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