Johnny Marr, "The Messenger" (Sire/ADA)
Not that long ago, I made myself a mix of highlights from Johnny Marr's post-Smiths career. Highlights, mind you, because in the decades since establishing himself as one of the greatest guitarists of my generation Marr has been a perpetual motion machine, constantly on the move from one project to the next, hardly lighting with one collaborator for more than one album. After the Smiths, he wrote with the Pretenders, worked with Kirsty MacColl and joined The The. He played for the Pet Shop Boys and formed Electronic with New Order's Bernard Sumner. He recorded with Billy Bragg and Talking Heads, wrote with Bryan Ferry and Paul McCartney, guested with Bananarama and Oasis. By this century, he was working with Bert Jansch and Neil Finn. Then he joined Modest Mouse. Then he joined the Cribs. It was one eclectic mix.
The through-line was Marr's distinctive way with the guitar -- a style of playing that eventually evolved into more muscled attacks and driving, even danceable, grooves well beyond the jangle and arpeggios that provided the Smiths canon with its unique shimmer. "The Messenger," however -- Marr's belated, proper solo debut (not counting his drab 2003 outing as Johnny Marr & the Healers) -- relates this journey with modest panache and a little long-overdue kick-ass. It's a Homeric summary of his odyssey -- places he's been, things he's seen, sounds he's assimilated -- and something of a homecoming, creatively speaking. It's a dim-sum menu of sounds that made all those other artists place an order for his services in the first place.
So it took him a generation to find his way back to the old house. These things take time.
That's not to imply that "The Messenger" brings only old news. There are a few riffs here that will play like comfort food to Smiths fans -- the time Marr spent remastering the Smiths catalog for the 2011 box set "Complete" clearly impacted his thinking here -- but "The Messenger" as a document acknowledges a lifetime of work rather than desperately attempting to revisit the past.
It comes on too strong to be Smithsy, anyway. On most tracks, "The Messenger" shoots first -- "The Right Thing Right" starts the record with a firm Northern Soul stomp, "European Me" opens with a quick Tommy-guitar assault, the single "Upstarts" is melodious but hard-charging Britpop riffage.
The bright title track struts with the kind of thrusting groove he could've nicked from the Cribs. The lilting chords and reverie of "New Town Velocity" offer the best opportunity for Smiths fans to imagine Morrissey's voice in place of Marr's (even though the words are well below-par for a poet of Moz's caliber). Marr is not a great vocalist, so sometimes the imagination serves listeners well, but he sounds better here than on many previous outings. The splendid, easygoing melody of "The Crack Up" gives his vocals somewhere to go. He's certainly no worse than the ever-dull Sumner.
"I felt something was missing from pop," Marr said recently. "When you hit it right on guitars in pop, it can be vivacious and exuberant and shiny." For most of "The Messenger," that's exactly how he hits it. Morrissey says he'll never again unite with his old partner, but -- considering the cranked-up backing band Morrissey has maintained since "Your Arsenal" -- if he listens to this album he might think the idea worth eating his words.