Johnny Marr is one of my favorite guitar players. With The Smiths and later with such acts as The The, Electronic, and The Cribs, he has played an endless supply of catchy intricate riffs and melodic hooks. But there is no doubt in my mind that at this point, as a songwriter during his time in The Smiths, that Morrissey was the true genius. Johnny Marr is simply at his best when he has another strong presence to inspire him. His three albums as a solo artist prove this. (I know the first album was technically credited to Johnny Marr and the Healers, but really that band was under his control.)
The Johnny Marr and the Healers album Boomslang is pretty much unlistenable as it features songs that sound like subpar Oasis. His first true solo album The Messenger is the best of the lot. It features the best riffs and at certain times almost, from a musical standpoint only, reminds me of the final Smiths album Strangeways, Here We Come, mixed with some of his work in Electronic and other bands.
His new album Playland is nowhere near as bad as Boomslang, but is not as good as The Messenger. Johnny Marr acquits himself lyrically. There is nothing embarrassing. It is simply that his lyrics don’t really add anything to the songs. They simply become part of the music. He can write catchy melodies, but nothing earth shattering.
When you buy a Johnny Marr solo record what you are really coming to it for his guitar playing. He has time and time again throughout his career provided riveting moments on the instrument. Somehow his guitar playing on his solo work, especially on his first album, and somewhat on this new album, seems the most pedestrian. The riff to Easy Money is quite catchy and reminds me of his work with Modest Mouse. There are a couple other moments on the record that are interesting from a guitar standpoint, but nothing that really wows me, and Johnny Marr has the capacity to do things through his playing alone that are really exciting. On his record with The Cribs, his playing front to back on that album is excellent, and he sounds invigorated and revitalized.
There are two big problems with this new album. Most people don’t realize how much Andy Rourke’s bass playing added to The Smiths. He bobbed and weaved with Johnny Marr in much the same way that Keith Richards and Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones do, or any excellent two guitar band does. That’s not a perfect analogy, but I want to get across the idea of two musicians playing off each other and inspiring each to new heights. The rhythm section on this album is really straightforward and brings nothing to the table. Almost every song features a straight ahead 4/4 plodding rhythm. Mike Joyce often played pretty straight in The Smiths, but again Andy Rourke gave Johnny Marr something to work off of. (Every band but maybe The Who need someone to lay it down and block, and that was Mike Joyce’s role in The Smiths) He really needs a better rhythm section if he is going to make a great solo album.
The other problem is the overabundance of synths. I love when artists try new things and stretch themselves. Johnny Marr has done so with The The and on the best Electronic stuff, both of which had keyboard heavy arrangements at times. The Smiths A Rush, A Push, and the Land is Ours show that Johnny Marr can also play really interesting stuff on keyboards when he wants to. But the keyboard playing on this new album is merely functionary and takes up space that could be used for more interesting guitar parts.
If I’m making this album sound horrible it is not. It is just that it is just above average when Johnny Marr is really capable of so much more. I try to review things in and of themselves and not compare things to the past too much. This is one time though when an artists many past triumphs get you excited and you feel slightly letdown. I can only say that this album is decent, when really greatness could have been achieved. I am a huge fan of his and I want to love this record, but every time I put it on I feel no strong emotions while listening.
If you haven’t bought anything by Johnny Marr in awhile and you are looking for something that he has done recently that is interesting, I would recommend The Cribs Ignore the Ignorant. His guitar is featured in the left hand speaker and a lot of it sounds live in the studio. It sounds like something was really on the line during the making of that record, and unfortunately here it does not.
Many records don’t fully reveal themselves till many listens down the road. I hope I am wrong here, but I get the feeling that I’m not.
I spent more time with the record today, after writing the review. One of the things that is challenging about a piece of music, and I am not under any of the restraints that someone that writes professionally for a magazine is, is that in criticizing it, you without a doubt make it sound worse than it is. I actually like this record, but feel that it is lacking in the above categories. If I didn’t point them out I’d be lying. The rhythm section is functionary, but they do get the job done and can sound quite propulsive at times. They are just not adding anything to the proceedings other than performing the basic functions of a decent rhythm section. Is the record better than a great deal of the shit on the radio? Yes. Is it a decent record? Yes. Knowing what Johnny Marr is truly capable of, from a guitar standpoint, does it live up to his legacy? No. Would I recommend it over a great deal of things people are listening to? Yes. If you could only spend money on one or two records would I recommend it over some other great records that have come out recently? No. All these different thoughts come into play when you are trying to recommend a piece of music: Where does it fits in quality wise in the current state of music? Does it break any new ground or at least do something original given the limitations of an established genre? When people have a limited amount of music that they can acquire how do you try to direct them to the art that you feel is the most worthy of attention?
Also, your perception of a record can change with added listens, in fact good art should be able to evolve with you. Are you potentially stopping people from listening to something that may grow more valid over time? Many of the great records were critically derided upon release. Most of them find their way, but would the culture be better off if critics weren’t so narrow minded sometimes? In mainstream culture we are often swimming in a sea of bullshit.
I can’t read a lot of modern criticism, well I shouldn’t read it anyway, because so much of it seems as if it is not asking itself these questions. So much of it seems to either champion the wrong values or to be in some kind of competition with itself to be as trendy as possible. (Pitchfork I’m looking at you.)
When I criticize an artist that I know has brought so much to the conversation, I feel conflicted. Johnny Marr has earned his right to make whatever music he wishes. Meanwhile, someone like Beyonce, who is constantly at the top of the charts, is so fucking vapid. I don’t write reviews on people like her, because it’s not worth my time or money. If I’m taking the time to write a review of something, it’s usually because I have liked them enough to buy their record. I’m not getting any free albums in the mail.
Anyway, there is so much more I could say, but I must disconnect…