Johnny Marr | The Messenger (Sire/ADA)

themessenger 75Marr’s intricate finger work and arpeggios are well known, and it is his style that makes this a gratifying listen.


Johnny Marr’s first solo album came out in late February, so this review is a bit behind the curve. Part of this has to do with my slow absorption of the material. On the surface, the songs are standard pop-rock fare, a genre I habitually, but not purposely, avoid. This impression comes from the drumming—dominant in its drive and repetitive in its tempos (straight 4/4 time all around)—and from the classically pop-song structure. Each track, ranging between three and four minutes long, is a candidate for radio. “Generate! Generate!” is the epitome of these impressions, but admittedly it is catchy. Some listeners may have to understandably take this album in doses due to the repetitive tempos and arrangement, but that also makes it perfect for an April spring drive.

Marr, who covers guitar and vocals, takes a quick break from the pop-rock configuration with Track 8, “Say Demesne,” the darkest of the 12 tunes. Reaching for his inner Mark Lanegan, Marr drops the tone of his voice and overall mood of the album. The Neil Young–ish solo breaks complete this conception.

Below the surface is a guitar album. The title track is a repetitive strain of vocals and riff picking, while “Lockdown” has the vocals and guitar employed in a parallel walks. Marr’s intricate finger work and arpeggios are well known, and it is his style that makes this a gratifying listen. Not only has Marr’s guitar work been impressive and downright inspiring over the decades, but he also leaves a body of work that should have him mentioned in circles with The Edge and Jack White. He has already been honored as one of the greatest guitar players of all time from such outlets as Rolling Stone and SPIN.

Demonstrating his careful consideration of tone are the opening measures to “The Crack Up” and the underlying head melody in “Say Demense.” “Upstarts” has echoing, shaky, dual riffs reminiscent of those Marr used with Modest Mouse, and “Word Starts Attack” would succinctly fit on a Modest Mouse album with its dual solo, funky bass, and dance beat.

So you have waited all this time for a Smiths reference. But the only match I can justify is the acoustic-centered “New Town Velocity,” which highlights the more down-tempo mood and multi-layered qualities of The Smiths songs. This album is not a regurgitation or throwback to The Smiths or to the ’80s as The Cure-esque overlapping, melodic riffs on “European Me” might suggest. It is truly a solo album that highlights Marr’s guitar work and vocal capabilities.

In the span of his career, Marr has played and recorded with a plethora of top tier acts, including The Pretenders, The The, Talking Heads, Billy Bragg, and the previously mentioned Modest Mouse. He also composed the Oscar-nominated score to Christopher Nolan’s Inception with Hans Zimmer. Although The Messenger may not be the capstone to his legacy, given his remarkable resume and skill, it’s time Marr be honored as a distinct musician. | J. Church

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