Johnny Marr, who, push comes to shove, I have always regarded as my single greatest musical hero and influence (not only for The Smiths, but also Electronic, and with Billy Bragg, and Modest Mouse, and Kirsty MacColl), is often asked which of the many musical projects he has been involved in is his personal favourite. The answer he invariably gives is the same – it is the fourth album proper by The The – the second he was involved with (after the bombastic and totally OTT, but not entirely without merit Mind Bomb).
I always thought this was probably revisionism on his part – not wanting to name a Smiths record, which most people would, obviously, point to as his musical high water mark – say, The Queen Is Dead, or Strangeways Here We Come. Given that he has also named Electronic’s Get The Message as his favourite track of his own, it does rather look like he is avoiding the obvious – something he has spent most of his musical career doing, for that matter.
But lately I have been playing Dusk a lot. And – even if I don’t entirely believe it to be his absolute best outing, I do think it is very, very good.
I am very fond of both Soul Mining and Infected – both deadly serious, kinda heavy, but thoroughly enjoyable electronic-infused-pop-rock records. Mind Bomb is just a bit much, with its oppressive atmosphere and, single The Beat(en) Generation and Sinead O’Connor duet Kingdom Of Rain aside, a bit light on actual tunes. Dusk is, for me, the culmination of the direction all these records were heading towards, and the apex of Marr’s collaboration with Matt Johnson, and I can totally see where Marr gets it being a favourite whole album of his.
It has terrific, swampy rock songs (a la How Soon Is Now?) such as Dogs Of Lust and Helpline Operator, genuinely strong songs like This Is The Night and Love Is Stronger Than Death, and, perversely, Marr’s most Smithsy post-Smiths moment – the glorious harmonica-and-jangle Slow Emotion Replay, recalling as it does classic early Smiths songs like Hand In Glove and Still Ill.
Matt Johnson is in fine fettle, and sings strongly, and it has a playfulness that is almost entirely absent from much of his other work, while the rhythm section of James Eller and David Palmer (ex-Julian Cope) add a supple and subtle muscularity – turns out Marr had actually been considering forming a band with these two independently.
It set me to thinking about that age old adage – that a great song should be able to be played just on an acoustic guitar or piano, and while the album certainly contains songs that would bear performance in this fashion, it has a whole bunch of other tracks where atmosphere is every bit as important as melody, or harmony, or lyrics. Certainly, it is the last record bearing a The The imprint that I found much pleasure in, and (I’m sure not coincidentally) the last to which Marr contributed.
Marr then made another couple of Electronic albums with Bernard Sumner (Raise The Pressure has its moments, Twisted Tenderness is fairly horrid), made the excellent We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank with Modest Mouse, and joined The Cribs, whose shouty-pub-indie I always found a curious match – precious little of the jubilant melancholy that Marr does so well to be found there. But, aside from those obvious Smiths classics, I reckon Dusk totally deserves its place in the cannon of the guitarist’s finest work.
To this end – a quick Top Ten Marr moments:
1: The Smiths Back To The Old House – the acoustic, Peel session version – Mar(r)tin-ed up loveliness. Could equally, obviously, have chosen How Soon Is Now?, or This Charming Man or Last Night I Dreamt… etc etc.
2: Billy Bragg Walk Away Renee (Version) – Marr, billed as Duane Tremolo, tenderly plucks away at the old Four Tops/ Left Banke classic while Bragg recites a hilarious tale of lost love, “Mr Potato Head” and unfortunate haircuts
3: Stex Still Feel The Rain – “there’s always been a dance element to our music” – Marr lends funky, distinctly Nile Rodgers-y shimmers of guitar to this pleasing, if somewhat dated, 1992 dancefloor friendly tune
4: The The Slow Emotion Replay – guitars jangle, harmonicas wail – it would have been interesting to see what Morrissey would have brought to this track
5: Electronic Getting Away With It – never mind Marr’s abiding fondness for the following Get The Message single, this is a sparkling pop gem that perfectly fuses New Order and Pet Shop Boys electro with Smithsy melancholy. It also half inches the melody from Psychedelic Furs’ Love My Way – this is a good thing
6: The Pretenders Windows Of The World/1969 – totally two sides of the coin; Marr adds delicious 12 string chime to the Bacharach/David A-side and Chrissie Hynde’s lovely vocals, before unleashing wah-wahed-up thrash on the Stooges cover flip side (a la The Queen Is Dead).
7: Kirsty MacColl Mother’s Ruin – Marr combines with Dave Gilmour and Robbie McIntosh and makes a big, lovely, melancholy swoosh. His two songwriting contributions, The End Of A Perfect Day and You And Me Baby are also strong
8: Johnny Marr The Messenger – while Marr’s nominal “solo” debut in 2012 (I can sort of understand Marr’s desire to ignore 2003’s Johnny Marr & The Healers effort Boomslang – it was horrid) was also a faint disappointment, the title track felt fresh and invigorating in a sort of Manc-mystic way – see also the Mod-ded up pop of The Right Thing Right and Upstarts, and the Smiths-y jangle of New Town Velocity
9: REM Fall On Me – live, with Marr – because I love the idea of Marr and Peter Buck on dual Rickenbackers, chiming away on my fave REM song
10: Marion Miyako Hideaway – Marr produces, co-writes and plays guitar on this obscure, dark gem. A great pity the band, and in particular singer Jaime Harding, lost their way.
by Jeremy Taylor