Johnny Marr ‘The Messenger' (Sire)
After The Smiths broke up in 1987, guitarist Johnny Marr became more of a legend than an actual musical presence, choosing to take sideman jobs with Bryan Ferry, Talking Heads, Modest Mouse and The The. When he did show up as an equal partner with New Order's Bernard Sumner in the early 1990s pop duo Electronic, the project bore few of the stylistic emblems that made Marr the most revered guitar god of his generation. He never seemed to relish his ownership of one of modern rock's greatest legacies: When he finally made 2003's “Boomslang,” a solo album credited to Johnny Marr + the Healers, the results sounded more like middling Oasis' leftovers than the work of the man responsible for the ringing melodies of “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” “Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now” and “This Charming Man.”
But “The Messenger,” Marr's new album, sounds like the kind of music Marr used to make. Beginning with a great dramatic flourish on “The Right Thing Right,” whose starting figure echoes Marr's opening fanfare from the Smiths' “Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before,” “The Messenger” sounds like nothing less than the album this guitarist should have released in 1989. His command of the melody and aesthetics that dominated his best work is front and center on the gorgeous “European Me,” and Marr taps into the swirling beauty that marked his best work on “The Queen Is Dead” on “New Town Velocity.”
Not everything sounds like a throwback to Marr's Smiths period. The title song and “Say Demesne” are propelled by subtle layers of electronics, something Morrissey could never really abide. And it probably goes without saying that Marr possesses neither the vocal nor the lyrical mastery of his former musical partner, but “The Messenger” underlines the musical ingredients that have largely gone missing from Morrissey's solo work.
Marr is doing almost nothing new, but the artistic divergences and side trips he took over the past quarter-century only frustrated those who knew he was capable of something greater.
“The Messenger” finally delivers on a long-deferred promise.
— George Lang