Sunday, 24 February 2013

Music: Johnny Marr - The Messenger album review

Johnny Marr - The Messenger
When The Smiths split in 1987, front-man Morrissey released his first solo album Viva Hate within six months - it has taken guitarist Johnny Marr over two and a half decades to release his effort, The Messenger.

Granted, he meandered around the indie scene, dipping into projects that interested him, including Electronic, Modest Mouse, and, most recently, The Cribs, but the prospect of a solo album from the man himself is something that many fans of The Smiths have been anticipating for a long time.

The Messenger bursts opens with the indie stomper ‘The Right Thing Right’. The first thing that strikes you about this song is its vitality – this doesn’t sound like the afterthought of a veteran musician looking to cash in on his legacy, but rather feels like something quite fresh and exciting.

‘I Want the Heartbeat’ is dark and urgent, with off-key guitar riffs that seem to swirl with twitchy paranoia around the edges of the mix colliding with an intense driving bass-line that could have been lifted from one of the Libertines’ more punky numbers. The mood is lightened by ‘European Me’, a track held together by an infectious pop vocal melody that could easily find itself on a New Order record – this isn’t a criticism, Marr’s delivery is excellent.

‘Upstarts’ is rather dull and marks a low point on the album with its verse that seems to plod along aimlessly and a chorus that echoes that disco-tinged indie that was all the rage in 2005. Things improve slightly with ‘Lockdown’, but again the music is incredibly generic and doesn’t do anything to showcase Marr’s talent as either a guitarist or songwriter.

The title track The Messenger has been a mainstay on BBC 6 Music’s playlist since the end of last year and is an excellent song. Again, we hear hints of Bernard Sumner’s understated vocal delivery combining with the gentle melodic guitar style of Green-era REM. There’s a great contrast in this song between the sharp guitar stabs of the intro with the laid-back funk of the song’s bass-line. It’s a well-deserving first single.

‘Generate! Generate!’ is bristling with prickly urgency. With stop-start guitars and punchy vocals, it’s a song that instantly grabs your attention. There are elements of this song that could easily fit in with some of The Smiths’ later tracks, but there is a harmonic quality to the song’s chorus that was lacking with The Smiths.

On ‘Say Demesne’ we hear something akin to the scratchy guitar sounds of Modest Mouse. The song is excellent, and Marr gives his strongest vocal performance on the album, with his voice possessing the same rich quality as Richard Hawley. Indeed, the Hawley comparison doesn’t end there; this is a track that could have easily fit onto last year’s Standing At The Sky's Edge, with its epic guitars and echoic keyboards creating an almost otherworldly atmosphere.

‘Sun and Moon’ is held together by a ramshackle bass-line that would make New York feminists Le Tigre proud. It’s a great song that culminates in a crescendo of heavy guitar distortion that verges on white noise. Things get a bit more laid-back with ‘The Crack Up’ – a song that leans a little bit too much towards the bouncy reggae-tinged indie of Hard Fi for my liking. Luckily, there’s enough charm in the song, however, for it not to register as completely dull.

‘New Town Velocity’ is a piece of music that grabs you with its subtlety. On the first few listens, it’s one of those tracks that feel like filler, but its melodies are quite stunning and the chorus sounds better each time you hear it.

The Messenger closes with brash stomper ‘Word Starts Attack’, the music to which sounds as though it could have featured on Franz Ferdinand’s debut, with its tinny guitar riffs and deliberate drum patterns. It’s a pretty decent track, but you feel a little bit disappointed.

There’s a lot of expectation and anticipation riding on this album, and sadly it doesn’t quite deliver. There are a few too many nods towards the mid-2000s indie scene for the album to sound original or even that relevant, but there are some parts of the album that are truly excellent and it is definitely an album that improves with each listen.

What is perhaps most surprising about The Messenger is just how good Marr’s vocals are. He has spent much of his career shying away from centre stage, but his performances in tracks like ‘The Messenger’ and ‘Say Demesne’ make me wish that he’d made a solo album sooner.

Official Johnny Marr.

This article was featured on Sabotage Times and Alternative Music Press.

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