Johnny Marr has spent 25 of his roughly 30 years as a recording artist not being in The Smiths. The Messenger is an album by someone who has put a quarter of a century between himself and the band that made him famous with projects like The The, Electronic, Modest Mouse, and The Cribs used as stylistic buffers. So it should come as no surprise that the most palpable influences on The Messenger are the contemporary American and British indie groups Marr often champions; this is a distinctly contemporary album. But The Messenger is also an album that sounds like it was made by Johnny Marr; a labor of love from an artist who loves playing the guitar so much that he’ll seemingly do it for literally anybody. And so, as a product of the Johnny Marr who has done time with The The, Electronic, Modest Mouse, and The Cribs, The Messenger comes with as much baggage as it does boon.
The first thing most will attack about The Messenger is Marr’s voice. It’s not that Johnny Marr is a bad singer, and it’s not that these songs really need him to be a good singer; he just doesn’t sound very interested in singing. This is, presumably, why he sings so rarely. Lyrics here are kind of stiff, and Marr is trying to make some fairly sophomoric (though not ignoble) statements about consumerism and the way technology eats up our lives. But all of that is fine, because this is a Johnny Marr album. Johnny Marr is a guitar genius; that’s why you’re listening to this album, right?
Fortunately, Marr’s guitar brilliance is relatively intact on The Messenger, and there’s really nothing musical about this album that feels phoned in – including both Marr’s playing and his songwriting. The problem with both Marr’s playing and his songwriting is, oddly enough, clearest on The Messenger’s standout tracks, such as the three in a row wallop of “Upstarts,” “Lockdown,” and “The Messenger.” On songs like these, you’re confronted with the fact that Marr has committed fully to a fairly middling idea of what indie guitar rock should be; that these are the kinds of songs Marr wants to write. Don’t get me wrong, some of these are great songs; it’s just that you kind of get the feeling that Johnny Marr could be aiming a little higher. But in addition to being a fastidious guitar nerd, Marr has always been a very intelligent absorber of music. Neither a zeitgeist chaser, he seems to be really good at recognizing what it is exactly that he loves about the music he hears and channeling it. So it’s not that Marr missed his mark on The Messenger, it’s more like he was aiming at the wrong one.
I would like to mention “The Crack Up,” which is probably the only track on this album that really stands out as being legitimately capable of going head to head with Marr’s Smiths work. “The Crack Up” has that kind of light-hearted darkness to it that makes songs sound a little more New Wave, though it’s definitely still influenced by the contemporary groups Marr has interacted with. The fact is that on a whole, The Messenger is just a little too ordinary to have come from such an extraordinarily passionate musician. Watch any video of Johnny Marr explaining his guitar technique and you’ll see a man who can barely contain his glee for the craft. This is a labor of love from someone who loves his labor, and I hope an endeavor that will lend some prolificity to the Johnny Marr solo career (population: one album). Perhaps next time he’ll make an album that’s more than just one third great.
Johnny Marr – “Lockdown”
Johnny Marr – “The Crack Up”