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 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.”
Unsurprisingly, Marr’s knack for infectious guitar lines saves most of the album. “Lockdown” 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”, his 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.
Never one to rest on his technical laurels, Marr proves he can pen a stellar vocal melody on “The Crack Up” and “New Town Velocity”. But the lyrics stand out as the LP’s prime pitfall. Without Morrissey or Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock by his side, Marr fumbles with clichés on “I Want the Heartbeat” (“I want the heartbeat, I want the heartbeat / Get me your whole machine, technology, technology”) and “Sun & Moon” (“Let’s get rich and get the feeling to have it all”).
From his days with The Cribs, Marr poaches Ryan Jarman’s garage guitar on “Upstarts”. The presence of Doviak, who also co-produced the album alongside Marr, can be heard throughout the album’s melodic choruses and sparse keyboard licks. And the wayward, Pacific NW indie rock vibe of “The Messenger” and “Word Starts Attack” surely owes a thing or two to Modest Mouse.
The Messenger provides glimmers of shoegaze, new wave, Britpop, garage, experimental, alt, and indie rock amid tight musicianship and economical songwriting (eight of the 12 cuts 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.
Essential Tracks: “The Crack Up”, “Lockdown”, and “The Messenger”