PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Johnny Marr: Playland

Johnny Marr's second solo album suggests a consummate musician becoming more comfortable with his solo status.

Johnny Marr


Label: New Voodoo
US Release Date: 2014-10-07
UK Release Date: 2014-10-06

“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.


    Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

    PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





    Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

    The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


    15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

    Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


    Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

    Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


    Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

    Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


    Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

    On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


    Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

    Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


    Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

    From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


    The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

    In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


    British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

    Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


    Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

    Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


    ​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

    Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


    The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

    When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


    Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

    Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


    How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

    Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


    Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

    Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


    CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

    CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


    Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

    Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


    While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

    Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

    Collapse Expand Reviews

    Collapse Expand Features

    PM Picks
    Collapse Expand Pm Picks

    © 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
    PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.