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Johnny Marr - The Messenger (Album Review)

Saturday, 09 February 2013 Written by Graeme Marsh
Johnny Marr - The Messenger (Album Review)

Being a legend in the music business will do founder member and guitarist of iconic indie darlings The Smiths, Johnny Marr, no favours as he dips his toe into the world of solo releases for the very first time after plying his trade for a staggering 35 years. This time has been spent within a huge number of bands, making it somewhat fitting that his very own name is remarkably similar to the word ‘journeyman’. Expectations for something special will be high; can he scale the heights the indie legends achieved, which had been the result of an inimitable partnership with flamboyant singer and lyricist Morrissey, or would he end up with egg on his face, returning to band life with his tail between his legs? Rumoured to be one of the nicest guys in the music world, you’re already hoping for his sake that it won’t be the latter.

ImagePossibly the most eagerly awaited album 2013 will see, 'The Messenger' hits the market on 25th February through Sire Records. Marr has ventured into vocalist/lyricist territory before when he formed his own band in 2000, the Healers, but they went largely unnoticed by the masses so the big question on most people’s lips is, can he sing?

Well the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’; he has a surprisingly good voice – not the strongest by far, but good enough to warrant an immediate follow-up question of ‘why has he kept quiet for so much of that career?’

A preference to step away from the focus that is always so firmly placed on the singer and frontman of any band is probably the answer, but as you begin listening to the album you can only shake your head in disappointment that he didn’t step forward years ago.

The album opens with the upbeat feel good pounding of 'The Right Thing Right', trademark guitars providing the exciting almost Who-like intro with the very first words sparking the brain into overdrive in order to seek an initial vocal comparison, which for a fleeting moment leads to Julian Cope before soon disappearing as similarities fade and Marr’s own persona starts to take shape. An all too quick 3.5 minutes later, we’re left with a wonderment of what lies ahead if the opening track sounds this good. Scrawling guitars break the silence as 'I Want the Heartbeat' gets underway, again the 166 BPM pace setting the tone for another foot-tappingly good 3 minutes.

'European Me' follows, a gorgeous melodic pop tune that rises to a sweeping, soaring chorus with some sublime guitaring thrown in during an instrumental recess, the kind that only Marr could deliver with his distinctive jangly sound – another slab of great indie pop.

First single to be lifted from the album 'Upstarts' then takes over, with an immediately satisfying guitar riff that will soon be going round in your head after a few listens, again delivered at a pulsating tempo. However, a chord change halfway through the song indicates perhaps that a full length song has been dragged out of an excellent opening passage, but unless you’re Guided by Voices you’re not going to be able to wind the track up satisfyingly after only 2 minutes so the song continues and definitely loses its edge slightly as it progresses.

As 'Lockdown' bursts on to the scene with an almost David Bowie ‘Heroes’ sound to the first couple of bars, the album continues to please. Sonically soaring once again, the production clearly emphasises the highly enjoyable guitar mastery, pushing Marr’s strengths to the forefront.

Title track 'The Messenger' announces its arrival with an original scale-climbing intro before kicking in fully, sounding like an Interpol track minus the doom and gloom element, replaced instead by a perfectly befitting vocal. The almost haunting lyrical question ‘who wants to be the messenger’ swirls throughout the song, intertwined with another glorious guitar line and a bouncing bass line; superb stuff and a guaranteed hit.

'Generate! Generate!' then follows. A curious one this, almost like 2 ideas have been stitched together. At first it seems as if it isn’t going to be in keeping with the rest of the album so far, vocally sounding more like a chant. But then as the song develops the music takes more of a hold over the singing/chanting. Devoid of a distinct bridge, the song then flows into another almost soaring chorus before returning to the mundane chanting. But just as you’re left wondering if this is the one that’s going to break your skip button on future plays, a soft interlude bounces along nicely before building up into possibly the albums biggest spine-tingling moment so far, a short burst of all out guitar riffing that’ll have you thinking more of the repeat button than the skip.

The pace finally drops when the haunting opening to 'Say Demesne' gets underway, a foreboding, echoey delay and chorus strumming followed by an atmospheric string-synth sound and a strong vocal, adding up to sounding like a lost Echo & the Bunnymen classic. A piercing guitar breaks into the scene, giving the song yet another dimension before another majestic soaring chorus takes over. As the song continues the music delights - truly an epic, surely destined for many TV outings as emotional turmoil reigns over the characters within.

The lull in pace is only temporary as Sun and Moon bursts into play. A chunky guitar riff kicks proceedings off but it soon loses its way with an uninspiring combination of verse, bridge and chorus. A disappointment after what has gone before but a testimony to this albums quality in that we are already up to track 9 of 12 before that can really be said in earnest.

Unfortunately 'The Crack Up' continues in mediocre territory, questioning the placement of the 2 weakest songs on the album so far in adjoining positions. Not much longevity can be seen in these tracks but in a way it provides a thoughtful break to be able to take stock of what has gone before.

'New Town Velocity' provides a turning point just as you start thinking that you could have had one of the best albums of the year in your hand if only the last 2 numbers had been better. Sounding remarkably like latter day New Order without Hooky’s distinctive bass, you half expect to hear Bernard Sumner start singing. After a minute of music, Marr’s vocal kicks in and immediately you know this is going to be another gem. Again, the guitaring lives up to expectation, the chorus being accompanied by another distinctive melodic guitar line which carries on throughout the remainder of this song.

The album is brought to a conclusion by another hit-and-miss effort in 'Word Starts Attack', which is a shame, because the final track of an album can provide an aftertaste that unfairly flavours the entire album.

In conclusion, this has elements of Marr’s entire career within it which is only natural, of course. A masterpiece? Not quite, he won’t win any literary awards for example, but a damn essential purchase with enough great moments to have you playing this album for a long, long time.

'The Messenger' is released on Monday 25th February via Warner Bros. Johnny Marr supports the album with a March UK tour.

Johnny Marr UK & Ireland Tour Dates are as follows:

Tue March 5th 2013 - Duchess, York
Thu March 7th 2013 - Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
Fri March 8th 2013 - 53 Degrees, Preston
Sun March 10th 2013 - O2 Academy Oxford, Oxford
Mon March 11th 2013 - Waterfront, Norwich
Tue March 12th 2013 - Junction, Cambridge
Thu March 14th 2013 - Concorde 2, Brighton
Fri March 15th 2013 - O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire, London
Sat March 16th 2013 - The Institute, Birmingham
Mon March 18th 2013 - Leadmill, Sheffield
Tue March 19th 2013 - O2 ABC Glasgow, Glasgow
Wed March 20th 2013 - O2 Academy Liverpool, Liverpool
Fri March 22nd 2013 - The Ritz, Manchester
Sat March 23rd 2013 - The Ritz, Manchester
Tue March 26th 2013 - The Limelight, Belfast

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