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Album review: Johnny Marr delivers with 'The Messenger'

The guitarist shows a wide range on what is being billed as his first solo album, but the Smiths' influence is easy to detect.

March 01, 2013|By Mikael Wood
(Tim Whitby, Getty Images )

Fans of the Smiths have more to occupy them this week than at any point in recent memory.

Dominating the conversation in his usual fashion, the outspoken frontman Morrissey — who co-founded the hugely influential (and now defunct) English band with guitarist Johnny Marr in 1982 — has been involved in high-profile feuds related to his vegetarianism.

First, he battled the owners of Staples Center over his demand that the venue go meat-free for his concert on Friday. Then the singer canceled a scheduled performance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" Tuesday because of a shared booking with cast members from the reality TV show "Duck Dynasty" — or, as he referred to them in a statement, "animal serial killers."

Morrissey is to play Saturday night at Hollywood High School, a gig that reportedly sold out in just 12 seconds.

Yet Marr has hardly kept quiet. On Tuesday, a full 25 years after he left the Smiths, the guitarist released what's being described as his first solo album, "The Messenger" ("Boomslang," from 2003, was billed to Johnny Marr & the Healers). And Wednesday night in London the British music magazine NME presented Marr with its Godlike Genius award; he performed at the ceremony, doing the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?" with help from Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones.

This confluence of headlines is as close to a Smiths reunion as we're likely to get: Marr and Morrissey have claimed to have zero interest in re-forming the group. But if Morrissey has long since proved capable of holding attention on his own, "The Messenger" suggests finally that Marr, who's scheduled to play Coachella in April, is up to the task as well.

Though it's rooted in the jangly guitar sound that was the Smiths' enduring contribution to alternative rock, "The Messenger" ranges widely, reflecting Marr's varied experience as a sideman with acts that include the Pretenders, the The and Pet Shop Boys.

He envelops "Say Demesne" in the kind of synth textures he and Bernard Sumner (of New Order) brandished in their duo Electronic; the title track rides a disco-punk bass line reminiscent of Modest Mouse, the American indie band Marr joined for a spell in the late 2000s. And "Upstarts," inspired by rioting in his hometown of Manchester, has some of the cramped pub-rock intensity he presumably picked up from his recent stint with the Cribs.

Still, the album's best cuts are those that deliver the weirdly effulgent melancholy so associated with the Smiths.

In "New Town Velocity" Marr describes his decision as a young man to quit school "for poetry," as he sings over lush electro-acoustic strumming, and the spikier "Generate! Generate!" examines his avowed tendency toward workaholism.

With its images of empty stations and a "sun-covered track," "European Me" is harder to parse; it might be an account of homesickness from an inveterate traveler. (Marr made "The Messenger" in Manchester and Berlin after relocating for several years with his wife and children to Portland, Ore.) But the song's descending guitar line is clearly legible: insatiable longing distilled into a handful of beautiful notes.

Even when his songwriting gets lumpy — as in "I Want the Heart Beat," a goofy techno-dystopian vision — Marr's playing still wows, be it the slashing power chords of "Lockdown" or the reverbed arpeggios of "The Crack Up." It's strong stuff, proof that Marr doesn't require Morrissey's reflected light to shine.

mikael.wood@latimes.com

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Johnny Marr

"The Messenger"

(Sire)

3 stars

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