Release Date: Feb 26, 2013
Record label: New Voodoo
The massively influential Smiths guitarist finally makes the solid solo debut he should've recorded a quarter-century ago. It's relatively anonymous Brit rock, and some of his gripes about the rock scene are less than becoming for someone of his age and stature. But his guitar playing is gobsmackingly great – all sunbursts and snarls, technically amazing yet emotionally direct, fusing volumes of rock history into fleeting passages.
With over three decades of music-making to his credit—not to mention god-like status amongst guitar aficionados—it must feel exciting and satisfying for Marr to be delivering such an inspired debut solo effort. The feeling is mutual, sir..
What superhuman effort it must have taken, during the recording of The Smiths’ 1984 classic ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ for Johnny Marr not to lean over to Morrissey and say, “Y’know what, we get the gist, but how much better would this song be if it was about gangs of angry toddlers smashing bank windows?” How did the now 49-year-old Marr fail to halt the writing of The Cribs’ 2009 single ‘Cheat On Me’ and go, “Nice concept, Ryan, but how about if it’s the guy who’s cheating, he’s a Lottery winner and is having illicit sex with a life-support machine behind his wife’s back?” And how could he have stopped himself from listening to Modest Mouse’s 2007 album ‘We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank’ without saying, “Good work, guys, but the album could’ve done with more murdered Russian supermodels, maudlin prostitutes and kids having plastic surgery to look like cats. ”But Johnny pottered along for decades, lacing other people’s albums with his legendary licks, saving the above ideas for his first ever solo album (except the one about the kiddie-cats, which he cut out at the last minute). An album recorded in Berlin and built around the theme of cities and buildings – our formative love affairs and hateful splits with them.
Upon leaving the Smiths in 1987, Johnny Marr embarked on a musical walkabout, choosing to collaborate rather than build a career. He began playing studio sessions, appearing on records by Talking Heads, Pretenders, Kirsty MacColl, Pet Shop Boys, and Billy Bragg, embarked on an extended collaboration with Matt Johnson of The The, and formed Electronic with Bernard Sumner, effectively sitting out the great Brit-pop explosion of the '90s. By the turn of the millennium, he finally tried his hand at fronting a band, turning in the underwhelming Boomslang with the Healers in 2003, before once again sliding into a supporting role, joining Modest Mouse in 2006 and then decamping for the Cribs a few years later.
After over two decades of collaborations with everyone from The The to the Cribs, Johnny Marr's first solo album proper (2003's Boomslang, fronting the Healers, shouldn't count) finally edges back towards his Smiths vintage guitar playing. Trademark cascading hooks abound in The Right Thing Right and Lockdown, while European Me again reprises the Elvis riff he once remodelled for Rusholme Ruffians. There's a different energy in the likes of Upstarts – the prickly pop power of Mancunian predecessors Buzzcocks – and more typical Marr tunesmithery in the excellent Electronic-esque title track.
After playing the proverbial second fiddle for decades, it’s nice to finally hear a complete soundscape nearly 100 percent assembled by Johnny Marr. If you’re even a casual Smiths fan, you know Marr knows his guitar like Mel did Audrey (but maybe a little less paraphilia-sounding than that). His first proper solo album, The Messenger, packs a lot of legal axe-lovin’.
In the quarter century since the Smiths disbanded, Johnny Marr has been content to blend into the collective protection of ensembles, staring out of the shadows of his own legacy as his recognition as a guitar genius has grown from insider insistence to well-established fact. Marr seems to have taken comfort in fading into a crowd instead of forging a singular path. When the Smiths called it quits—prompted by his own defection—Marr spent a day jamming with Sir Paul before playing a brief series of shows with another iconic group, the Pretenders.
Declaring a man to be a "god-like genius" several months shy of his 5oth birthday implies he has no more worlds left to conquer. It's been like this for Johnny Marr since before his 25th birthday, when he co-wrote a couple dozen perfect pop songs with Morrissey and then departed for a series of celebrity rocker odd jobs in other people's bands (including Modest Mouse, the Pretenders, Talking Heads, and Pet Shop Boys). To say Marr ran up the score on his legacy with the Smiths, and has been treading water ever since, would be reductive.
It’s a bit disorienting to think that in the 25 years since the last Smiths album, Johnny Marr has never made a solo album until now. He worked with everyone from The The to Modest Mouse and, most recently, The Cribs in the interim, ranging from songwriter to performer in varying capacities. He did, however, front Johnny Marr and The Healers, a solo album in all but credit—perhaps due to the name value of the other musicians—in which Marr composed and sang lead on every song, but their only album received mixed reviews and was quickly forgotten.
As long as Johnny Marr's the messenger, I'm always going to listen. From his early, groundbreaking days with the Smiths through his time playing with artists as diverse as Kirsty MacColl and Modest Mouse, Marr's guitar playing has always been magnetic. And it's no different on The Messenger, his second solo album and first in 10 years. Some songs have the jangle that helped make his first band so exciting, while others highlight his more driving, trebly tendencies.
It's almost impossible for those with any fondness for either guitars or indie music – in its historical form, rather than its current incarnation as the home for hyped youth – not to greet news of a Johnny Marr solo album with a smile of indulgence. It's hard to think of someone granted so much goodwill, not just for his glorious past, but also for dealing with it with such dignity. Rather than wallow in the afterglow of the Smiths or descend into a parody of himself, Marr has worked ceaselessly on projects more likely to amuse him than enable him to upgrade from the house he calls an "indie pile" into an actual rock'n'roll pile.
“David Cameron, stop saying that you like The Smiths. No you don’t. I forbid you to like it.” It was with that tweet back in 2010 that Johnny Marr confirmed the massive impact of The Smiths’ cultural legacy. From being the champions of the dispossessed and alienated to being namechecked by the Prime Minister – it’s been quite a journey.
Tromping out on his own for the first time at the tender age of 49, erstwhile Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr’s solo debut The Messenger channels an urgent, effervescent verve driven by melodic Fender Jaguar riffs. Throughout the LP, the English stalwart offers nostalgic glimpses back into his previous offerings while treading lightly on time-worn turf. Released by Sire Records and mastered at Abbey Road, Marr’s first solo effort follows a diverse range of collaborations with Pacific Northwest rockers Modest Mouse, UK comrades The Cribs, and philanthropic supergroup 7 Worlds Collide.
Marr’s reputation as arguably the best British guitarist of the last 30 years is richly deserved, as time and again he’s brought personality and eloquence to a varied portfolio of music. On the evidence of his debut solo album, however, he has a long way to go before he earns any great plaudits as a singer-songwriter. There are plenty of confident flourishes on The Messenger: the bold six-string motifs of The Right Thing Right and Upstarts full of surly aggressive riffs that recall the early 80s anthemics of Teardrop Explodes or Echo & The Bunnymen; the mellow strum of New Town Velocity peppered with an REM-like atmosphere.
Johnny Marr has been a supporting cast member to so many in his near 30-year career that it’s nigh on impossible to count the multifarious acts that will be able to bask in his reflected celestial glory come his beatification as a Godlike Genius at the hands of NME on February 27. Despite the fact he’s contributed to a number of fruitful musical collaborations over the years - be it with Bernard Sumner in Electronic and his contributions to The The in late Eighties/early Nineties, as well as more recent successes with Modest Mouse and The Cribs - there’s really no doubting that it’s his masterful songwriting between 1982 and 1987 for which he is being bestowed the title of Godlike Genius. Either way, the timing is great for the release of what is strictly speaking his solo debut.
Johnny Marr's previous solo showing was 2003's flat arena-rock experiment, Boomslang. For The Messenger, the ex-Smiths axe genius returns to the guitar pop of his youth. Marr chimes, jangles, strums, and crunches, using whatever tricks best serve the song. Not that The Messenger trucks in nostalgia, mind you.
Speak of the messenger and lo, he doth appear – it's just taken him a bloody long time to turn up carrying a bag bulging with missives penned solely by his own hand. But when you're as high-class a courier as Johnny Marr, there's scant opportunity to hone solitary wares. For the past 30 years, he's been the undisputed king of the electric emissarys: a guitar-wielding Hermes, if you like, gift-wrapping the words of others with sonic finery so they can be delivered unto the world at large.
Marr’s solo debut proper lacks the shine he’s brought to other bands’ records. Tom Hocknell 2013 Mutually admired by fellow guitarists and critics alike, Johnny Marr hasn’t rushed his first solo album since The Smiths’ demise – a split from which some fans are still recovering, unlike Marr himself, who has barely looked back. From successfully varied collaborations with Electronic, Modest Mouse and The Cribs, Marr has also (amongst others) provided valuable contributions to Pet Shop Boys, Pretenders and The The.