March 6, 2013

Test Spins: Johnny Marr, The Messenger

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It only took five years to completely define Johnny Marr’s career. Between 1982 and 1987, he was the guitarist and co-songwriter for The Smiths: A band that not only revolutionized alternative music but also became the lifeline to countless lost teenage souls. To many, including yours truly, The Smiths are more than a band; they’ve become a soundtrack to almost every imaginable emotion. Even though I was born seven years after the group broke up, The Smiths are an inescapably huge part of my existence. I’d been not-so-patiently waiting for The Messenger for quite some time just to give Johnny Marr another chance.

Since rewriting music history with one of the greatest bands ever, Marr has been laying low and biding time.  After some uninteresting attempts at cameos with other groups, music production and the creation of a supergroup Electric, Marr released some downright bad music with Johnny Marr and the Healers and followed it up with some cookie-cutter Britpop with The Cribs. Frankly, the best music he put out since the ’80s was the theme song to The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret (a British comedy that everybody who likes Arrested Development would love). He wasn’t given much of a reason to push boundaries until NME recently called him a “godlike genius,” plus, Smiths addicts like myself will continue to buy whatever schlock he releases regardless.

The Messenger is just that: schlock. It would have been perfect in the mid-90s, the height of Morrissey’s solo heyday, with its Smiths-on-steroids sound. Today, however, the album is a time capsule of a bygone era when minimalism was absent from indie rockers’ vocabularies. Tracks like “I Want the Heartbeat” sound like something you’d hear in the background of an English teen movie circa 1995. While it’s obvious that this genre wouldn’t exist without Marr’s involvement with The Smiths, this music has been done to death. If someone had told me that I’d heard every track on the record before, I wouldn’t be surprised. Even though Marr was a Britrock pioneer, he shouldn’t let himself release repetitive, unoriginal tracks in a stale mold.

“European Me” was the first time I could have guessed this was Johnny Marr’s own album, with an airy intro riff that wouldn’t have been out of place in a track on Meat is Murder. “Lockdown” has another ’80s Marr intro, but the rest of both tracks can’t measure up to these riffs. In Marr’s attempt to be accessible, The Messenger is filled with boring verses and repetitive, mindlessly simple choruses. Complex, creative phrases are sprinkled on the fringes, but, in reality, Marr can’t pull off being a solo act. A skeptical listener can’t help but wonder if he needs a strong lead (like Morrissey) to guide the bulk of the music.

Speaking of Morrissey, Johnny Marr’s vocal delivery doesn’t measure up to the driving, overdriven Britpop he’s strumming. It can’t. Obviously it’s unfair to compare him to the Mozzer, but Marr’s weak, warm vocals get lost in The Messenger’s booming choruses. While his voice works fine in songs like “”European Me,” it gets lost in tracks that try to rock really hard like “I Want The Heartbeat.”

Marr’s feeble singing has one redeeming quality — obscuring the album’s shallow lyrics. Again, Marr isn’t the bookworm his former band mate is, but some of the lines kill brain cells.  “Upstarts,” a track about the commercialization of subculture, features “The overground is underground/The overground will pull you down” in its chorus. Marr has commented that he dislikes the trend that requires lyrics today to be heartfelt and meaningful, and laments that lyrics can’t come from the brain. Perhaps he presents this image in an attempt to distance himself from Morrissey, the one who arguably solidified that trend, but it’s a fact that listeners have become accustomed to lyrics that elicit emotional reactions. Trite metaphors about technology and corporations ruling our lives seem like a cop-out.

Those metaphors don’t resonate with Smiths listeners of our generation, but we’re not the target audience of The Messenger. Marr wants to give his older listeners something familiar and safe that he knew they’d like. I could see how a Generation-Xer who was chasing The Smiths around Manchester in 1982 would be taken aback by Marr trying to break new ground. But most Smiths fans still have faith in how creative Johnny Marr can be, and, at least those who have grown up since the ’80s, want to see him continue innovating.

If someone other than Johnny Marr released The Messenger, none of us would have ever heard of it. The artist that made it would be a nobody perpetually playing small pub gigs in northwest England. It’s hard to say what would have made the LP live up to expectations. On one hand, we could say that Marr needs a strong lead like Morrissey. Perhaps he can’t be the solo act Moz is because Marr doesn’t have an ego big enough. But that isn’t necessarily true as instrumental Smiths tracks like “Money Changes Everything” show us. Maybe, instead of overdoing the overdrive, he should have stuck to the bright, jangly Rickenbacker riffs that made him famous. Whatever the solution is, writing such a negative review of The Messenger was very difficult for this Johnny Marr fan. I guess I was just hoping for something impossible.

Original Author: Michael Sosnick