Johnny Marr, ‘The Messenger’ (Sire/ADA)
Release Date: February 26, 2013
While some still wrestle with Coachella 2013’s most vexing mystery — Who Are the Stone Roses? — there remains no question about the relevance about that other huge guitar-driven band from Manchester: No conversation about indie rock can go long without paying homage to the Smiths, and more specifically, Johnny Marr. That pristine Rickenbacker jangle, that juxtaposition of upbeat euphoria and dreamy melancholia wrapped in a flowing bow of chords — these sounds will be forever romanticized in youthful memories and Hollywood films, forever attempted by every sad-sack who ever picked up a guitar, if only just to impress a girl or a boy. But no matter how much money (or how little meat) any festival juggernaut offers, the Smiths ain’t getting back together.
Fortunately, we’ve still got the steadfast Marr himself, who’s also making the trip to Coachella, right on the heels of releasing his first-ever solo album. After decades of working with bands from the The to Electronic to the Cribs to Modest Mouse to his own Johnny Marr & the Healers, he’s no longer just indie’s favorite sideman.
In fact, with his guitar alone, Marr is both an architect and a precocious kid let loose with a set of paints, brightening each track with guitar lines that flutter and flow naturally in and out of the borders of convention. The Messenger boasts all sorts of string trickery, of course, from the rhythmic wails of sleek, anthemic rockers “The Right Thing Right” and “Sun & Moon” to the metallic squall of the Luddite-leaning “I Want the Heartbeat,” from the jangly tremors of “European Me” and “New Town Velocity” to the dark ripples of “Say Demesne,” from the wobbly New Wave echoes of “The Crack Up” to the wiry, previously Modest Mouse-gifted rattle of the disco-rocking “Word Starts Attack.” Much of the above is glossed over with thick coats of U2-branded grandiose production, burying some of Marr’s more nuanced artisanship, but it’s there nonetheless.
Then comes another vexing question: Can the man sing? Sure, but Marr’s lead vocals here stay safely within the lines — he’s more an anonymous mouthpiece, fluctuating in timbre from Bono to Bernard Sumner to a Gallagher bro. And though he may not manipulate prose like our old friend Morrissey (who can?), he faithfully runs through tried-and-tested rock tropes with simplistic pop precision: technology’s worrisome control, political crusading, life in England, and the joys of leaving home. Along the way, he sprinkles in oohs to invite sing-alongs and chants (“Generate! Generate!”) to compel butts to rise out of seats.
So, no, Marr isn’t exactly reinventing rock here — he already did that. The Messenger feels more like a tribute to his youth, to his home, and to all the musicians he’s worked with over the past three decades. If anything, he aims to celebrate something he helped shape: fun, catchy, vibrant Britpop. And if the “everything comes back into fashion after 20 years” rule is true (and a look at that Coachella bill makes a good case), he’s right on schedule.