Guitarist Johnny Marr has long been heralded as the consummate sideman and collaborator—and a reluctant, if not downright delinquent, bandleader. The shoe fits: After leaving The Smiths in 1987, he’s become one of rock’s most wayward journeyman, popping up on albums by everyone from Talking Heads to Tom Jones, not to mention his brief tenures in established acts like Modest Mouse and random projects like the supergroup Electronic. The lack of a consistent identity hasn’t hampered him, and he’s managed to work at least a little of his lush, ringing style into everything he does. His new album, The Messenger, is being billed as his solo debut, although his defunct project Johnny Marr And The Healers rightly claimed that honor back in 2003 with its only full-length, Boomslang. It’s as if he’s trying to rebrand himself once again as a standalone singer-songwriter with as much vision as skill—an image that The Messenger does little to substantiate.
Few tracks on The Messenger stand out from each other, let alone from the collected body of British rock over the past four decades. Songs like “The Right Thing Right” and “I Want The Heartbeat” are peppy and catchy on the surface, but there’s nothing going on underneath them—and Marr’s middling, featureless vocals don’t add any value, personality-wise. “New Town Velocity” sounds like Electronic without the electronics, and minus the quirky, endearing singing of New Order’s Bernard Sumner. Marr badly needs a foil of some kind to bounce off of; that’s always been his strength as a player, and that lack of complement or chemistry is frustrating. As is Marr’s lack of freshness. For someone whose recordings with The Smiths continue to inspire legions of guitarists, he renders tracks like “Sun & Moon” and “Generate! Generate!” little more than weak copies of upstart acts from the ’00s. When someone of Marr’s stature is writing tunes that sound like Kasabian and Franz Ferdinand B-sides, something’s gone horribly wrong.
The disc’s overall pleasantness and pasteurized charm are what save it from being wholly aggravating. There’s a breeziness to the upbeat yet atmospheric “European Me” that counteracts the plodding inconsequence of the title track, and one song, the slinky, textured “The Crack Up,” comes close to imagining what a truly inspired Marr solo album might sound like. There’s nothing bad about The Messenger—except for the fact that Marr is so glaringly capable of doing better. A musician of his caliber should have at least something of his own to say. And that lack of a message is The Messenger’s main drawback. Given another chance to stand and shine on his own formidable merits, Marr once again chooses to just sort of slump.