The Messenger, Johnny Marr's first solo album since his acrimonious split with The Smiths 25 years ago, proves to be well worth the wait.
Former member of The Smiths releases solo album
The great giants of the influential 1980s Manchester music scene are gathering once more: earlier this year, New Order released an old album of new material called Lost Sirens and began touring again, albeit with a reshuffled line-up. Last weekend, meanwhile, the reformed Stone Roses delivered a stunning performance at Dubai Media City that reminded many in the audience why they'd fallen so hopelessly in love with the band two decades ago. Even Happy Mondays, whose 1993 break-up was precipitated by an ultimately toxic combination of circumstances that included their record label's impending bankruptcy and their frontman's predilection for Kentucky Fried Chicken, are back on the road.
And now, Johnny Marr, one-half of the creative force behind The Smiths, arguably the best band to hail from north-west England during that decade, has released The Messenger, his first solo album, more than 25 years after parting with Morrissey and company.
In truth, Marr has hardly been inactive since that 1987 rupture. Always happy to collaborate, he has put out albums with six other bands in the post-Smiths era - most notably Electronic, The The, Modest Mouse and The Cribs - as well as providing guest turns for just about everyone from Bryan Ferry to Girls Aloud. That said, the light that would never go out when Marr was at the centre of The Smiths has often been more predisposed to flicker since.
As The Smiths' acrimonious split fades ever further into the distance, reunion rumours have periodically surfaced, only to be quickly cut down. For his part, Marr - whose intricate instrumental arrangements were often fused with Morrissey's fierce lyrical screeds on the inequalities he saw in Margaret Thatcher's Britain - has said recently, his tongue firmly in cheek, that if David Cameron's Conservative-led coalition government stepped down, he'd reform The Smiths.
With the first part of that equation unlikely, diehard Marr fans - and they are legion - will have to make do with The Messenger, on which he sings, performs and produces.
Unfortunately, for all his abilities, Marr's long-awaited solo album begins in a rather unpromising fashion: The Right Thing Right, the album's opening track, is a stodgy affair, while I Want the Heartbeat, which follows, falls short of the mark too. Instead, we find Marr in faux new wave territory endlessly repeating the word "technology".
That much is the bad news. The Messenger quickly recovers from there: European Me delivers a guitar track that seems to reference mid- to late-era Smiths and a far more assured vocal performance, while Upstarts, the album's lead single, is an infectiously joyous stomp through youthful protest movements ("the underground is overground," sings Marr, "the overground will pull you down").
Matters reach a mid-album crescendo with Lockdown and the title track, its sunscorched chorus paired with some majestic guitars. Further highlights include New Town Velocity (which, gloriously, sounds like it might belong in the Electronic years), Say Demesne and The Crack Up, a song that trails a layered soundscape and a playful vocal track.
More than two decades after Marr recorded Get the Message with Electronic, The Messenger has arrived. Was it worth the wait for delivery? Definitely.
* Nick March