Guitarist Johnny Marr’s career pathway doesn’t read much like the conventional step-by-step guide to musical success. It goes something like this:
- Be the lead guitarist for an iconic alt-rock band.
- Spend the next two-and-a-half decades in relative obscurity as a hired gun for other bands.
- Release your first solo album by age 50.
Reading Marr’s resume, it would be easy to assume that his heyday as lead guitarist for The Smiths has long passed, and anything after that is anti-climatic. Indeed, his solo release The Messenger has a long, uphill climb to even come close to The Smiths at their lowest ebb. But a word to rock aficionados: if you write this one off too soon, you’ll miss not only a master class in great rock music, but a hidden treasure of rock history in and of itself.
You see, there’s a reason why Johnny Marr has stayed busy these past 25 years since The Smiths: simply put, he’s an outstanding guitarist. Not only that, but his playing not only helped shaped the sound of The Smiths, but of alternative rock for years to come. That being said, The Messenger is predictably not a musical groundbreaker by today’s standards, but it is a showcase of the kind of songs and sounds that first garnered Johnny Marr a pedestal in the pantheon of great rock guitarists. Marr has fully embraced his roots here, but in a manner that is not dated, but rather timeless. He acts his age while still demonstrating how much the young upstarts can still learn from him. In my view, that’s the smartest thing he could have done.
Throughout the album, Marr admittedly has a little trouble filling the solo space with personality—a flaw to be expected from someone who has spent nearly his entire career as a sideman—but what he does bring, he brings respectably. He’s always been a good songwriter (as proven long ago by his time with The Smiths), and on The Messenger he holds his own on the mic as well. Granted, you’re not going to find the vocal presence of Morrissey or Bono or someone like that, but that’s not why you’d pick up a record with the name Johnny Marr on it. You’d pick up that record for the guitar work, and in that regard, this album scratches the itch quite nicely. This is also a very consistent record throughout, with each track filling its own space well with few fillers or throwaways. The first three tracks, “The Right Thing Right,” “I Want the Heartbeat” and “European Me” are IMHO the strongest tracks, but don’t take that to mean the rest of the album is downhill—just that the album has a nice, strong beginning. Another personal fave is the haunting “Say Demesne.” Just great atmosphere.
It’s a safe bet that Johnny Marr is not likely to have a solo career matching his former bandmate Morrissey (who unfortunately has been in the news recently more for what he’s had to cancel due to illness than for what he’s actually done—get well soon!). But some of the world’s greatest music is not always found at the top of the charts. For fans of The Smiths, or for alternative rock in general, The Messenger is a gem not to be missed.