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Album of the week : The Messenger - Johnny Marr

In the 25 years since the Smiths’ demise, Johnny Marr has largely opted for a seemingly baffling parade of one-off session work and sideman jobs. 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

In fact, he’s spent so long subordinating himself to other people’s artistic visions that The Messenger, his first solo album, is a bracing reminder of his talents as a sonic architect. For the album, Marr recruited a posse of seasoned vets in the studio, including Iwan Gronow, drummer Jack Mitchell — formerly of Haven and now with Mutineers — and Healers’ keyboardist James Doviak . According to Marr, The Messenger traces his “experience of living in Britain,” and explores how passing the better part of five decades under the Union Jack has molded and shaped him through incalculable “beauty, energy, and stories”

The album charges out of the gate with the layered guitars and Motown-ish beat surrender of ‘The Right Thing Right’, touches on post-punk gloom with the scraping, ominous ‘Say Demesne’, and captures the sighing melancholy of his old band on ‘New Town Velocity’

It’s interesting to speculate on how Marr’s vocals would have spiked or deflated a harmony when paired with Morrissey - but guessing from their public disinterest with each other, we’ll probably never know. But it’s nice to hear Marr take the main mike with his soft yet assertive voice. With this release, it’s not just lead vocals and guitar he covers—Marr also wrote and produced the entire album

‘Generate! Generate!’ gallops with a fresh necessity and jangle guitars, as Marr sings “I come by and all is fly/ Generate, generate, generate/ You got no how, I got to know now/ Calculate, calculate, calculate”. ‘Lockdown’ bops around the idea of identity and the sense of origin and belonging associated with it. It deploys meandering shoegaze guitars to frame Marr’s menacing admonition that we’re rapidly approaching his breaking point: “Look out everyone / I’ve been pushed on for too long”. On title track ‘The Messenger’, Marr’s intricate Fender licks weave around a steady rhythm, as riffs shoot out from behind the singer’s seductive whisper

Anchoring the LP’s backend, ‘The Crack Up’ leads with synthetic feedback and deftly interlaced guitars. Anticipation swells as the guitars are unexpectedly cut off by four successive cymbal taps that push the song into its sardonic chorus: “Her smiles are miles of metaphor/ It don’t crack up/ It don’t add up”

Transitioning bluntly to ‘New Town Velocity’, a simple, nostalgic acoustic guitar provides the backbone for this ditty about escaping small town suffocation: “Left home a mystery / Leave school for poetry / I say goodbye to them and me.” As the track fades, his daughter Sonny Marr’s bittersweet backup vocals usher us into a heartbreaking orchestral haze, hinting that independence comes at a hefty cost

The Messenger provides glimmers of new wave, Britpop, garage, experimental, alt, and indie rock amid tight musicianship and economical songwriting (eight of the 12 tracks clock in at under four minutes). This consolidation of his various projects achieves an amalgam of styles and genres that the transient guitarist has assimilated and crafted through his prolific career. It’s proof that Johnny Marr, nearly half a century old, can still unpack new skills and techniques from a hefty bag of guitar-drenched tricks

Marr’s pre-eminence as a guitarist has never been in question while his steadfast avoidance of releasing new songs under his name has obscured how he was the sonic architect of the Smiths. One quick listen to The Messenger brings all his signatures rushing back — the intricate, intertwining arrangements, the insistent riffs finding a counterpoint in the elastic yet precise melodies, a romance with the past that doesn’t negate the present. Marr has long avoided these traits, so hearing each in full bloom on the album is rather thrilling; he’s no longer wandering, he’s found his way back home

Buy it here

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March 01, 2013

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