Johnny Marr's second solo album suggests a consummate musician becoming more comfortable with his solo status.
“Power pop” is so often a label which has attracted derision. But it has had its moments in the sun: the Knack’s “My Sharona”, which topped the US charts for six weeks in the summer of 1979, was an irresistible confection of muscular beat and melody; the Flamin’ Groovies mid-'70s classic, “Shake Some Action”, a jingle-jangle pop heaven. Even Oasis, with the immortal “Slide Away” on their first album dabbled with power pop – although they would never have admitted it, and of course “Britpop” was a much trendier and more convenient flag under which to promote their wall-of-sound omnipotence.
Equally, Brit guitar hero Johnny Marr would have run a mile (Morrissey’s reaction would presumably have been unprintable) from any attempt to label the ground-breaking post-punk oeuvre of the Smiths with any type of power pop description. But 30 years on from the heyday of the Manchester legends -- three decades which have seen Marr as a jobbing musician play with any number of top bands (the Pretenders, the The) and make major contributions as an integrated band member of US popular alternatives Modest Mouse and Brit gritty rockers the Cribs -- there is a sense that Johnny Marr has finally found his métier as a purveyor of high-quality guitar-driven pop music.
Playland follows (relatively) hot on the heels of The Messenger, Marr’s first proper solo album, which was issued in early 2013. The Messenger was in many ways an admirable first shot, but it failed to convince on all fronts. Playland, whose songs were written roughly around the same time as The Messenger’s, can therefore be viewed as a companion piece. But it is an improvement too, for the following reasons:
Johnny’s voice, which was justifiably criticised for its weak timbre on The Messenger, has toughened up (even without the assistance of double-tracking). It may on occasion still lack character and nuance. But this is a more confident frontman who feels more at ease on the mike, and it shows; the overall album exudes five-star energy, presumably reflecting Marr’s growing conviction in his solo project; and there’s a coherence on Playland -- a common thread through the tracks, riding Marr’s simply dazzling guitar work -- which didn’t resonate on The Messenger, which sometimes sounded clunky.
To be clear, it’s not all a perfect vista. Marr’s songwriting still hasn’t achieved such an unruffled equilibrium that he doesn’t at times fall into humdrum guitar rock. “25 Hours” and the final track “Little King” (even though it has a neat lyric attacking capitalist exploitation) fall into that category. But the highs far exceed the lows: “Dynamo” and “The Trap” have both drawn praise for their panoramic wide-screen sound. The latter song even deploys some pure Byrds-ian harmonies that transport you right out onto the freeway. “Easy Money” (another critique of 21st century obsessions with consumerism) is a great single, simultaneously catchy and metronomic (fantastic bottom end, too). “Speak Out Reach Out” conjures some of the glam noise and stomp associated with one of Johnny Marr’s heroes, Marc Bolan. “Candidate” captures a simmering tension and is another track of quality.
There may be nothing on Playland that matches the longing melodious beauty of “New Town Velocity” on The Messenger. But, although that was a wonderful track, it essentially didn’t tell us anything about Johnny Marr which we didn’t already know: that, as say “Big Mouth Strikes Again” all those decades ago demonstrated, he has a facility with a tune with which very few are blessed. The standout track on Playland, “This Tension”, by way of contrast gives us a new side to Marr which, while slotting perfectly into the album’s feel, would be interesting to hear him exploring more in the future. The best way to describe “This Tension” is as a synthesis between an archetype spiraling Smiths riff and a New Order track from the ‘80s, just as they were morphing into chilling, Euro-metropolitan dance masters. “This Tension” also possesses, for good measure, the most dramatic chord changes and Twin Peaks-like sonic sounds. I doubt Marr has written a better song in recent years.
It’s hard for a non-Brit to appreciate just the devotion and admiration which Marr has steadily accrued in his homeland. As a result, you find yourself desperately wanting Playland to be a success. Desperation no more, Johnny has done the business and he’s probably shown there is no finer holder of the rock guitar on the planet right now. Marr and his band are heading on the road in November: catch them.