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Johnny Marr is still playing the electric guitar. And damn well too, which diehard indie rock fans should be grateful for. His first major project after a long stint of playing axe on other bands’ records, The Messenger is proof that the fifty-year-old Marr still knows what he’s doing and will likely be relevant for years to come.
The Messenger feels almost like a time piece; a musical recollection of what was going on with Brit rock in the early 90s. It’s mellow, lush, and fun to listen to. It isn’t groundbreaking, but who wants groundbreaking when you can have nostalgia? Consider that this is Marr’s first solo album ever. That’s right, ever. It seems like he was conscious of creating a record that would stick to what his fans know him for, which was a smart decision. For an artist like Marr, who has been established as a pop genius for over two decades, reinventing the wheel could have turned out a little bit like the Star Wars prequels. Or the electronic Neil Young record. Sometimes it’s best to stick to what you’re good at.
What The Messenger does is reassert Marr’s status as an exceptionally talented songwriter and guitarist who can, believe it or not, sing well too. The album is mostly comprised of mid-tempo rockers like “The Right Thing Right” and “Lockdown,” but there’s some diversity to be found as well. “Sun & Moon” has swagger and the title track is dancy, thanks to the bass line and a drum groom. What’s most surprising about the record is that it doesn’t seem to have any slip-ups. There’s not a lousy track on it and it flows seamlessly. It’s the perfect length for a listen-through approach, which allows the collection of songs to be easily enjoyed together. It’s an actual album – not a collection of singles wedged between filler.
In recent years the instrument-that-started-it-all has unfortunately been placed on the back burner. We live in an era dominated by synths and samples. Even the latest Dinosaur Jr. album begins with a keyboard part. Thankfully, The Messenger does not follow that trend. It’s positively exploding with guitars. Jangly, crisp, fuzzy; they are the driving force of every single song. Marr’s playing is spot on too. His chord progressions are fresh and exciting, and there are countless catchy licks scattered throughout the record (the beginning of “Upstarts” in particular stands out). A gearhead would do unspeakable things to learn how Marr achieved his many flawless tones. There are, of course, a few keys here and there on the record, but they take a supporting role (as they should).
If there’s one thing to criticize about the record it might be that the vocals are slightly lackluster. Marr’s voice itself sounds great, but there aren’t too many vocal melodies that stand out. The vocals just kind of sit in the mix and are overshadowed by the instrumentation. Marr’s guitar playing is much more emotive than his singing and it would have been nice to hear him cut loose and explore a bit more. In fact, the record might be a little too buttoned-down in general. It provides a pleasant listening experience – maybe one that’s too pleasant.
Essentially, The Messenger is a great record that deserves to be bought and listened to. It’s nothing unusual, unexpected, or surprising, but that’s o.k. Fans of The Smiths, Modest Mouse, or any of the other countless projects Marr has been a part of will enjoy it for what it is: a guitar-centric indie record with Johnny’s name on the cover. It’s unfortunate that it will likely become a forgotten gem in the man’s stellar career.