Long is the shadow that Johnny Marr casts over the last thirty years of music. Over five years and four albums with The Smiths, Marr along with Morrissey penned a hatful of the Eighties’ finest moments, influencing myriad guitarists in the process and all by the age of 24. Since then he’s been something of a journeyman, playing with – among others – The Pretenders, his Electronic collaboration with Bernard Sumner, a more overtly proprietary Johnny Marr & The Healers, and more recently Modest Mouse and The Cribs.
‘The Messenger’ sees him return to Manchester from a stint in Portland, Oregon, an album written and influenced by the experience of being back on home soil. Past and present coalesce in musical influence and personal expression in what is largely a back-to-basics band album. Marr’s musical upbringing is filtered through his post-Smiths evolution to the point that there is a sense of familiarity to these tracks, both from Marr’s distinct style and the unmistakeable New Wave bloodline coursing through the album. Certain numbers feel like they could hail from any time in the last four decades, despite the overall panoramic production.
Marr sets out his stall on The Right Thing Right – the intro almost deconstructs that of The Who’s Overture, dragging it through the ditches until a pounding Motown beat takes over and Marr emits a jubilant “whooo!” A more abrasive guitar follows with I Want The Heartbeat. It’s a race for the finish from the get-go with Marr dwelling on relationships with technology, both here and on the Wire-like Word Starts Attack. European Me is a winner with an Echo & The Bunnymen approach, and Marr seems to fuse the bedroom punk stylings of old with that expansive, U2-aping production sheen he seems fond of throughout the album.
An upfront Upstarts is like something a sub-Jam pub rock band would knock out and borrows from that group’s ‘Setting Sons’/’Sound Affects’ period – “The underground is overground/ The overground will pull you down/ That’s how it goes/ In these times”. Sun & Moon is an equally unremarkable guitar-led rocker, while more New Wave style shouting features in Generate! Generate! – “Same old song/ What’s going on? / Calculate, calculate, calculate”. For all its stripped down charm it’s the one that digs in, instantly adhering to the subconscious – the rallying cry of a restless mind and an exercise in spacious simplicity.
The fantastic, echoing guitar intro of The Messenger leads into an album high point with Marr emulating a squalling, backwards style guitar. He pulls back the reins on Say Demesne – restrained and downbeat in a tale of place and prostitution – before a Beatles-y The Crack Up tumbles in, playful with a rippling guitar lead-in and an infectious, drum-clatter chorus. New Town Velocity though is the one that harks back most personally, to Marr’s youthful awakening – “leave school for poetry” – and the one that most overtly recalls his first band, with some vintage guitar lines. Here he lays out the tone of the album more explicitly than anywhere else, a nostalgic and affecting reminiscence.
More than anything ‘The Messenger’ feels like the work of a man rediscovering the formative sounds that laid the foundation for everything that followed. There is the sense that after emerging in a band so fully formed as The Smiths, Marr is reclaiming a piece of the austere post-punk lineage, albeit with a widescreen gloss. It doesn’t always work, but the undeniable retrospective passion shines through in what is ultimately a flawed, but hugely enjoyable album.