Johnny Marr is receiving over-the-top accolades these days – he did his best work half a lifetime ago (half his lifetime, to be precise) and it’s not helping anyone to have Marr win an award for “Godlike Genius” – that’s simply something he cannot live up to, it’s simply something that makes no sense; it makes NME looks stupid/even more stupid and it reflects poorly on all of us: music listeners/consumers. How ridiculous for such an award to exist. And if it were – in any real sense – something measurable (even though, by virtue of its title it’s not and never could be) the award should surely go to someone who oozes music – Mozart or Monk before Marr I say.
It’s interesting that that award – and a buzz of interest in Marr’s playing with The Smiths and as a go-to hired-hand for a variety of interesting performers across the late 1980s and through the 1990s – should come right now, a heavily renewed interest right as he’s releasing his new solo album. Some are calling it his debut. And, well, if I’d been involved in 2003’s Boomslang (credited to Johnny Marr & The Healers) I’d be wanting a do-over too. That was sub-Weller/fudged-Oasis; it was poor. It was – in the end – just boring. To the point of being monumentally underwhelming. You know, a bit like when that other British guitarist from that other crucial late-1980s British band released his new project, The Seahorses.
So, The Messenger is not even close to the lull that was Boomslang. But it’s still not the great album that the British music press will be lining up to tell you about in the coming hours, days and weeks…
It is one third quite good/very good, one third solid/decent and one third okay. Which is to say that there is nothing embarrassing on the record – and probably, despite a few numbers sneaking towards dull, nothing that actually shouldn’t be on the record.
Oddly, the record is the opposite of the usual top-heavy front-stacking. It’s an album that seems to offer more, song-wise, the deeper you go. Reminiscent, in that sense, of one of the great under-sung albums lucky to have Marr involved, Talking Heads’ Naked.
And this is the thing with The Messenger. Marr is recognisable – his guitar glides, is chic, is slick without ever seeming too polished. And we know his sound from so many guest appearances and collaborations – and – as will always be the way, from those 20 or so amazing songs he wrote with Morrissey (and the few others that are just below the A+ material).
You get the feeling that Marr still has an impeccable standard, that The Messenger was not just slapped together without thought; rather it’s been added to slowly, built, as much a case of graft as craft.
And this is – of course – the relative downfall of the album. It’s just simply not all that exciting. It’s beyond competent but it does not exceed expectations (unless of course you just wanted it to be better than Boomslang – and I guess for many of the faithful fans that’s exactly the hope to begin with).
I thought it was Marr’s time to shine – and hey, let’s be honest, it probably still is. But this is the sort of record you buy from obligation, you spend a lot of time with it, just as much time convincing yourself it’s great as actual time spent listening to it.
The part where Marr falls down is that he is a sideman. And always will be. He could be one of the best sidemen in indie-rock/pop. But he lacks any sort of charisma to be a front-man/band-leader. He has taste, we know this from his playing (even if he takes a while to fully announce this on The Messenger), he has ideas (though the songwriting never rises above perfunctory) but he has no real voice as a singer – which is not to suggest he cannot sing; just that he sounds like nothing – nothing special – when he does sing. It’s the voice you use for one or two songs. It’s a boring voice across a whole album.
And for all the great artists he has worked with post-Smiths he’s also parked up with some b-graders (The Cribs) and phoned-in the right angular playing that looks and sounds cool, but is go-nowhere stuff really.
I want to like The Messenger more than I do. And it’s not to be hated. But it offers nothing in the way of excitement – well there’s a moment here and there I guess, a small handful of songs that arguably sound more like The Smiths than a lot of what Morrissey has offered in recent times. And some songs that you actually imagine sounding a lot better if Moz stepped up and took over the vocal duties. And, having said that, it never sounds like it’s trying desperately to trace around The Smiths, for fear that if it doesn’t the fans will turn their backs. When it sinks in that Marr has made the epitome of a three-star album – and that is something most fans just won’t want to wear – it’s pleasant and easy enough to get on with without ever blowing you away.
But Smiths fans will buy this. And a new generation that have heard all about Marr playing with everyone from New Order and The The to Neil Finn and Modest Mouse will probably want to give it a go. And that’s okay. This record won’t insult you, won’t waste your time (entirely), won’t make you super cross and won’t make you feel ripped off.
But it also won’t be a record you’ll play again in six months time. You won’t. You’ll argue now that you will. But you will not. You’ll file it away. And then talk about how clever he is when he joins some other band that doesn’t really need him but is sure they could benefit from the association.
And in a year it will be parked up next to the remaining copies of Boomslang. For sale cheap. Even though it’s ten times the record when compared with that piece of boring shit.