Johnny Marr

The Messenger

Speak of the messenger and lo, he doth appear – it’s just taken him a bloody long time to turn up carrying a bag bulging with missives penned solely by his own hand. But when you’re as high-class a courier as Johnny Marr, there’s scant opportunity to hone solitary wares. For the past 30 years, he’s been the undisputed king of the electric emissarys: a guitar-wielding Hermes, if you like, gift-wrapping the words of others with sonic finery so they can be delivered unto the world at large.

Of course, it’d be foolhardy to reduce Marr to the role of mere stamp-licker and envelope-stuffer for more verbose foils. His most famously erstwhile and maudlin old mucker may scoop the ‘voice of a generation’ epitaphs, but Marr’s equally responsible for scoring a million angst-ridden teenage years, even if he rarely had to trouble his vocal chords to do so (there’s no denying, for example, that the exquisite jitter-rush tremolo of ‘How Soon Is Now’ is every bit as perfect an expression of romanticised self-loathing and loneliness as Moz’s much-trumpeted lyric).

Still, though: the prospect of Marr unfettered by any famous foil or hindered by a fellow collaborator’s vision is mighty tasty indeed. Ain’t even no Healers round these parts – here’s Johnny, on his lonesome. And it’s this curiosity that forms the crux of The Messenger, too. Anyone awaiting the same ear-pricking, skin-tingling innovation that Marr’s renowned for may be disappointed: his guitar dazzling throughout, no doubt – but there’s richer spoils here than his string-manipulation. Instead, the true fascination with his debut solo album is how it’s unmistakably shot through with his own personality. The opening double-salvo of ‘The Right Thing Right’ and ‘I Want The Heartbeat’ set the tone: the former a taut, tight Northern Soul stomp, filled with tell-tale tumbling riffs and levied with some camp-glamour by Marr’s lovably daft yelling of "Whoo!" in the opening 30 seconds; the latter all frenetic, helter-skelter guitars and Marr’s barked vocal about being enamoured with machinery. Both feel like love letters to his own history.

There’s a delicious temptation, then, to regard The Messenger as Marr’s first real public declaration, or a long-awaited tell-all memoir. Not that there’s anything autobiographically titillating to salivate over – although the lyric "Left home a mystery/Left school for poetry" does give an irresistible snapshot of a young Johnny, not long out of short trousers, with a headful of foppish dreams. ‘European Me’ is classic Marr, with its wet, glistening guitars and bubbling new-wave brightness bringing to mind both Electronic and The Smiths, while the title track follows a similar bent, too, with its whirlpool of jingle-jangle riffs.

Not that The Messenger solely ransacks the past, though: conversely, it’s the clunkier, more ham-fisted retro fodder that constitute the main misfires, especially lyrically. For all its spiky bluster, ‘Upstarts’ rings hollow, with some sub-Weller lyrical pilfering to boot ("The underground is overground/The underground will bring you down"), and the meat-and-potatoes rock of ‘Generate Generate’ doesn’t fare much better; Marr’s barking of "Same old song/What’s going on?" is likely to cause an international incident between kettles and pots the world over in ‘Who’s the blackest?’ diplomacy talks.

But when he pushes things forward, everything begins to glitter: there’s the weird and unsettling kinks of ‘Say Demesne’ with its eerie, melodramatic swoops and staccato rhythms coming off like the soundtrack to a gritty-yet-glitzy Northern film noir and hinting at a sordid underbelly ("Take you into a room where she opens your heart"), while the aforementioned ‘New Town Velocity’ is one of Marr’s finest compositions for yonks, bar none. The Messenger isn’t stamped with the same genius that’s made Marr the beloved indie hero of today, but it does detail exactly how he arrived at this point – and after 30 years of being all and sundry’s most dependable counterpart, that’s a pretty fine way to take an inaugural bow.

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