Mike Unger reviews Johnny Marr's The Messenger for Northern Transmissions


The Messenger

Johnny Marr

So far 2013 is turning into the year of the comeback. Not a few weeks removed from My Bloody Valentine’s 22 year return, comes the debut of sorts for Johnny Marr. Even though Marr has popped up here and there with a variety of other bands and acts, he’s mostly stayed away from the songwriting skills that brought us the Smiths, whose status as a band has just kept rising with each new generation that hears their songs. Marr, like MBV, have played the game of “absence making the heart grow fonder”. While Morrissey has garnered a solo career with meager results, Marr has generally kept quiet with his musical output, and even though he briefly joined the Smiths inspired Modest Mouse, Marr has stayed away from that particular sound. The Messenger however sees Marr with material that perhaps he’s been storing up, because it’s a sound that will immediately appeal to Smiths fans, old and new.

Like My Bloody Valentine there was never really any high demand for a Johnny Marr solo album. The time had past so far, that most fans had of resigned themselves that the time for the Smiths was something that would stay in the 80’s. Marr’s lack of interest in following Morrissey’s foray into the solo world could be attributed to his lack of success. Morrissey’s songs which keep his distinct soothing voice relevant, lack the punch of Marr’s songwriting. The reverse could inevitably happen to a Johnny Marr solo record, strong songs, but no Morrissey to complete the circle. The results though on Messenger are quite favorable for Marr, he clearly still is a master at song arranging and guitar tone. That’s really where the strengths lie in this album of songs that he may have been squirreling away for years because there is a timeless element to them. This album sounds like it could have come out directly post-Smiths, or even in the late 90’s when the Smiths were revitalized by bands like Oasis and Modest Mouse who reincarnated them. It was around this time that I started to get into the Smiths, as during the 80’s I was in my Metal phase, but in my twenties I turned to acts like David Bowie and The Cure to lead me out of the decade. There was a sense though when I really got into Bowie that I was seeing an incredible artist past his prime, and even in his later albums, which are for the most part are strong, none of them capture the magic of his earlier work. This same thought crossed my mind with The Messenger, but whether it’s due to his time hanging out with younger bands like the Cribs, Marr has showered this album with waters from the fountain of youth. There’s always a danger when older artists release albums because it may start to feel like “Dad Rock”. It’s easier for artists like Johnny Cash to age gracefully with his particular style of songwriting, but someone like Marr, it’s amazing how he’s able to craft rock songs that feel modern. I guess the magic of the Smiths is that modern dad’s probably listen to them just as much as their teenage children. Messenger though is not a Smiths album, the clear difference being that Morrissey is much more accomplished singer than Marr is. Marr sort of takes the George Harrison approach to his songwriting, keeping everything in his range which works for what he’s crafting, but doesn’t match that special marriage with Morrissey. Songs like “The Right Thing Right”, “European Me”, “Upstarts”, “Lockdown” will delight Smiths fans immediately, where “The Messenger”, “Say Demesne”, “The Crack Up” and “New Town Velocity” are songs which call for a singer with more range. “Generate! Generate!”, “Sun and Moon”, and “Word Starts Attack” appear to be songs directly influenced by his time with younger bands, a whole new creation when fused together as a whole make for a fascinating album.

Listening to music is always the best time machine, but it is almost nearly impossible for artists to copy themselves or perhaps rekindle past glory, but what they can do is stay relevant. All the ingredients that happened in the 80’s when Morrissey and Marr were writing songs will never be repeated. It’s like in a nebula when a star is forming, it’s the exact moment of time and space that causes a planet to form, and then perhaps it’s just the right elements that happen on that planet to start to develop life. The Messenger is an album that has roots in a particular solar system, but is strong enough to hold it’s own orbit in our current revolutionary state of the Sun.

– Michael Unger



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