Following the untimely demise of The Smiths, guitarist Johnny Marr did something quite rare for a burgeoning star of his level – he became anonymous. That’s not to say he truly disappeared, but instead of capitalizing on his star power like Morrissey did, Marr quietly pulled a reverse-Jimmy Page and became a session musician. His work saw him play with a who’s who of bands, including The Pretenders, Modest Mouse, Oasis, The Pet Shop Boys, as well as making numerous other appearances and one-offs. Where the aforementioned Page started out as a studio musician before becoming the guitarist of the biggest band on the planet, Marr seemed to revel in being a background player, going from a band on the cusp of that Led Zeppelin-like success to becoming just another day player in the music business.
With that in mind, it comes as something of a surprise to see Marr releasing The Messenger in 2013. It’s not just that Marr is making music under his own name or that he’s the primary singer as well as guitarist, it’s that this album sounds like it could’ve been released in 1994. Filled with Marr’s trademark ringing guitar, The Messenger feels like a conscious effort to create an album that could’ve been a Smiths record during that period. Unfortunately, while the band is tight and Marr’s playing is some of the best it’s ever been, the record is missing a true singer. In fact, one would be hard-pressed not to imagine what The Messenger would sound like with one Steven Morrissey at the helm.
Right from the start, Marr is at the top of his game, with his pretty guitar lines being the highlight of the opener, “The Right Thing Right.” A glorious stomping tune, it has the feel of a Motown song, while pulling from the best of that long-lost Britpop era. It’s a great number, until Marr’s voice hits the speakers, something that the album can never quite recover from. See, Marr’s voice is his guitar. It’s one of the most distinctive sounds in the annals of popular music, making him that rare type of guitarist where you can pick him out simply by the sound of a chord. His voice, however, is flat and unable to reach the heights needed to match that lovely guitar.
That guitar is a huge reason why The Messenger almost works. “European Me” sounds like a Smiths outtake, with Marr skillfully interweaving with his backup band like the pro he is. “Upstarts” has more of that Motown-inspired sound while featuring a breakdown reminiscent of Marr’s time with Modest Mouse. Yes, the album has the feel of a greatest hits record, with Marr pulling from many of the bands that he’s been a part of. But, to his credit, it does have its own identity and for the most part, it works as an entire piece rather than as individual songs.
Elsewhere, the title track “The Messenger” has a disco bounce that gives way to another gorgeous Marr solo. Then comes “Generate! Generate!,” which has a strong hook, but the repetitive nature of the song keeps it from being a highlight. Here’s where the album begins to slow down a bit, with Marr’s voice being the biggest problem. “Say Demense” should be a sexy and slinky number, but those flat, uninspiring vocals turn it into background music. The only time the song really soars is when Marr keeps quiet and lets his guitar do the talking. “Sun and Moon” is a rocker, with Marr letting loose on guitar, while subsequently killing any forward momentum with his singing. It’s unfortunate and more than a little frustrating to see what could’ve been such a great record lose traction due to such lifeless vocals.
The Messenger isn’t a bad album, but it’s not a great one either. While Marr should receive a tip of the hat for at least trying to step out of his element, he does harm the record by going a bit too far. As with all great guitarists, he tried to overextend his reach, creating something that almost works with the exception of that one final act of hubris – his voice. Listening to The Messenger almost feels like hearing a demo for the first time, with a temporary vocal track that is just waiting for the lead singer to take it to the next level. Unfortunately, there’s no Morrissey or Isaac Brock here to match Marr’s beautiful riffs. As it stands, The Messenger is an interesting nostalgia trip that features Marr at his best instrumentally, while being decidedly mediocre vocally.