It was always going to be a tricky sell for a man so long saddled with accusations of flightiness but Johnny Marr, the guitar hero of the ‘meh’ generation and creative itinerant extraordinaire hasn’t just made his first solo record, he’s also produced his most committed sounding set of songs since…..ooh the last time he was on speaking terms with Morrissey. And that’s a very long time indeed. The severed alliance of the Smiths notwithstanding, it’s impossible to approach anything claiming to be a debut Marr solo work (we won’t count the bland retro honking of The Healers) without first sifting through the scattered remnants of his considerable ‘play n pass’ history. Sure it’s always been at least interesting and sometimes glorious, but with each new collaboration, there was an increasing sense that the boy Marr was somehow running away from his destiny. For every twinkling guitar part exquisitely tossed off for Pet Shop Boys or Talking Heads, every great (well three to be exact) Electronic single, every new band he hooked up with for five minutes and improved by a factor of five, the shadow of The Smiths and his greatest work loomed large – an unfair benchmark which would always find him somehow wanting.
And now, after 26 years, he’s gone back to the source apparently. The Messenger‘ even opens with a Joycean (Mike not James) Motown stomp and what sounds for a second like a golden-era Morrissey yelping as if he’s been spanked on the back of the legs with his own gladioli. ‘The Right Thing Right’ starts proceedings as they mean to go on, with a head-on collision of nostalgia and “now”. Johnny seems desperate to tear through his new set of ideas before we have a chance to sit down and take proper stock.
Even as the Marr vocal quickly levels off into a pleasing if unspectacular sounding instrument, he’s already scampered off breathlessly to sonic pastures new; laying down more licks, hooks and squeals with his tool of choice, than you’d come across in your average soho sex dungeon. As soon as track one fades, ‘I Want The Heartbeat’ cranks into spluttering post-punk life, and then he’s pulling another set of guitar tricks from his sizeable inventory whilst hollering “Get me me my own machine – technology, technology!” And it’s, well it’s Johnny Marr isn’t it? It feels like ‘classic Johnny Marr’ you think, before you even stop to consider just what that means. Thing is Marr, once the innovator, is now clearly recycling his own history. But who better to do the job?
‘European Me’ for example merges the balalaika-like swells of ‘I Won’t Share You’, with shades of Rusholme Ruffians but ultimately, like a good many great sounding ideas on The Messenger ultimately goes nowhere fast. What it lacks in overall coherence it makes up for in sheer brio. Marr clearly feels like he’s making up for lost time, or perhaps he’s been invigorated by gunning for young gurning chancers like The Cribs in recent years. The album is full off the feverish, frenzied twisted-knicker antics of a man pushing 50 also trying to push the message that he’s still vital. And he succeeds at least in that.
Titles are all thrusting verbiage and quotations are all exclamatory. ‘Generate! Generate!’, ‘Words Start Attack; and lines calling one to “Calculate. Calculate! Calculate!” like an excitable indie Dalek are actually part of the endearing thrill of the record. Lyrically he’s no Matt Johnson Jarman, never mind Morrissey. The declamatory words attempt a cool detachment whilst offering little more than obfuscatory opaqueness. I suppose he might argue the words and his voice are simply there to add vocal texture. But then “Cogito ergo dumb…. ” oh dear…
Yet when he nails a song, it seldom wriggles free. The title track and lead off single is a gloriously languid Chic / Byrds amalgam that rewards with repeated listening and is one of the few times on the album when he doesn’t feel like he’s forcing the youthful vigour. ‘New Town Velocity’ (another of those strident titles) is another track where the components gel beautifully, this time into something both wondrous and naggingly familiar. The cascading chiming guitars last heard during Marr’s The The stint, a vocal that somehow channels both Ray Davies and Bernard Sumner and a gorgeous mournful Rickenbacker driven chorus, it’s almost like an old man’s belated response to the naive poetry a friend once wrote about double-decker buses and the like – but that’s most likely wishful thinking.
The Messenger, on complete balance (if that’s possible with an album that should be prefixed with the words “long-awaited”) is a pleasing collection from a clearly reinvigorated musical talent. There’s more great ideas here than wholly satisfying songs, but do you expect from somebody who’s clearing out the creative pipes after the biggest musical logjam in the history of tree flavoured preserves? His debut then is a spirited opening salvo from a spanking brand new solo artist, and it nearly comes off. If meeting is still murder for the finest songwriting duo of their generation, at least this side of the divorce has plenty of vim and vigour left in it. Who knew?