Music Reviews
The Messenger

Johnny Marr The Messenger

(New Voodoo) Buy it from Insound Rating - 6/10

It’s a bit disorienting to think that in the 25 years since the last Smiths album, Johnny Marr has never made a solo album until now. He worked with everyone from The The to Modest Mouse and, most recently, The Cribs in the interim, ranging from songwriter to performer in varying capacities. He did, however, front Johnny Marr and The Healers, a solo album in all but credit—perhaps due to the name value of the other musicians—in which Marr composed and sang lead on every song, but their only album received mixed reviews and was quickly forgotten. The only consistency in those 25 years is that anything that sounds too much like The Smiths was dropped; Marr wanted to move on, find new identity, and stay relevant. He has, and whether it’s because of or in spite of his work with other groups is up for debate, but the Fender Jaguar of The Messenger can jangle, attack, and even frighten.

It’s striking that Marr is as good a singer as he is, considering most of us have spent all of our time on earth since 1984 knowing him as the guy who does not sing. At times, notably on Generate! Generate!, find Marr trying to sound more than a little like Michael Stipe, but without the idiosyncratic delivery. He finds his own rhythms and cadences, and while you can tell he’s not the best singer in the world when he cuts off notes quickly and tends to remove vocals from the variable phrases in his songs, he certainly gets the job done.

That gives The Messenger a comfortably sitting place, somewhere closer to R.E.M. than The Smiths but with a few more guitar tricks than Peter Buck (who is a great guitarist in his own right). Nobody has ever been able to layer guitars or write intersecting, harmonizing guitar lines quite like Johnny Marr, and although the sound isn’t quite as memorable and innovative as it once was, the guitar work on The Messenger is versatile and admirable. Marr utilizes a variety of effects, and when he plays with distortion on Lockdown he begins to flirt with shoegaze. Lockdown stands not just as the album’s best track, but also the most revealing, proof that the best guitarist of the ‘80s is never done improving himself. He does another new trick with the jagged, edgy riff of Generate! Generate!, and yet another with the echoing, droning intro and the well-timed licks on Say Demesne. The latter of those allows the keyboards of James Doviak (of the Healers) a much-deserved turn in the spotlight. All throughout the messenger, the accompaniment of Doviak serves as a melodic backbone, holding the songs together when Marr’s vocal lines start to wonder and also give The Messenger the feel of a complete album instead of just an attempt to show-off.

Where The Messenger falters, however, is on the lyrics. His rhyme schemes are well-executed but skew toward the simple, but it’s the reliance on cliché that really sticks out. The runaway blues of the well-orchestrated New Town Velocity read like an imageless version of Springsteen’s No Surrender , and his man-machine comparisons, “fast machine transmits her wave way back to the team”, and “give me your whole machine” on I Want The Heartbeat are without a metaphorical punch or insightful analogy. Similarly, the call to “smash the mirrors” on Word Starts Attack, the closing track, are repetitive and hollow.

The lyrical flaws are not a fatal stab, but it’s an enormous burden. It’s wonderful to hear Marr pushing himself stylistically. There’s an impressive array of sounds to behold on this record, from straightforward rock ‘n’ roll to shoegaze to the familiar jangle pop. Unfortunately, it’s best to listen to The Messenger without paying too much attention to the lyrics, to let the guitar lines wash over or dance around you. If Marr had an Isaac Brock or a Morrissey with him, this could have been a great record; as it stands, it’s far from a great record, albeit more than a curiosity. My only curiosity is what Modest Mouse would have sounded like if Marr had contributed more to We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank and had stayed with Modest Mouse. But I guess The Messenger is good enough to get me thinking about that, and I suppose that’s pretty good indeed.