Johnny Marr is enjoying a renewed vigour since his tenure with The Cribs and Modest Mouse in the latter part of the last decade. Judging by Playland, his second solo album proper, it seems Marr may end up enjoying it more than the rest of us. Since The Smiths disbanded after having defined indie music in the Eighties and Marr influenced generations with his unique style, the guitarist has gotten around, playing with The The and Electronic, as well as the aforementioned new breed. His Boomslang record, released under the moniker Johnny Marr & The Healers over ten years ago, seems a lifetime away in light of the new and improved Johnny, and 2013’s The Messenger was a more definitive announcement that Marr was ready to step out from the sideman role and into a solo career.
The writing process for Playland began immediately after his debut, inspired by the bands Marr liked as a kid who knocked out their second albums post-haste. Talking Heads and Wire are both reference points here – unfortunately, there’s not a chance that Playland will ever be spoken of in the same breath as More Songs About Buildings And Food or Chairs Missing.
Where The Messenger was a record that borrowed from the best parts of ‘70s post-punk and new wave, Playland seems to lean more into the following decade. Synths are to the fore and Marr eschews guitar hero mode more than ever, the playing lacklustre despite a few glistening passages; for the most part the songs are an insipid pastiche of new wave bands past. This is ground Marr has already covered more successfully on The Messenger, a hugely enjoyable listen. In his haste to join the ranks of the swift release brigade, he has sacrificed the only thing that matters – the songs.
It’s not a completely lost cause. ‘Dynamo’ is one of the more successful cuts, its chorus lush and harmony laden in comparison to the more upfront attack of verse, while ‘The Trap’ takes a soulful, Style Council redolent route. ‘Easy Money’ is memorably hooky with a pulsating synth, disco beat drums, and Marr decrying commercialism and filthy lucre, “Cash for a degree/ And that’s money, money”.
Tribal drums lead the title track, as a guitar line squeals without much body alongside an anaemic synth line. ‘Speak Out Reach Out’ just sounds like a rehash of ‘Word Starts Attack’ from the last album. It’s here, and on the rest of the record’s nondescript higher gear numbers, that it seems that Marr is reprocessing not only his new wave favourites, but his own take on their sound. To say the songs on Playland are bad – Marr is too accomplished for that – is even going too far. They’re just forgettable.
The fine foundation riff on closer ‘Little King’ is buried under the Wire-aping framework, one more instance of an inspired musical nugget polished into the pedestrian sheen that typifies the entire album. Ultimately Playland is simply more frustrating than anything else; not only has Marr missed what passed for a post-punk revival by about fifteen years, he’s exhausted his own ability to channel it into something worthwhile. He got away with it last time. That joke isn’t funny anymore.