For fans of the Smiths, it’s been an excruciatingly long wait to see what the solo career of guitarist Johnny Marr might hold. Unlike former songwriting partner and frontman Morrissey, Marr bided his time after the Smiths’ 1987 demise before attaching his name to another high-profile project. It’s hardly as though Marr was idle, though, as one glance at the chronology of his work included in his press kit makes clear. Between 1987 and the present, Marr played with Bryan Ferry, Talking Heads, Kirsty MacColl, Pet Shop Boys, Beck, Liam Gallagher, and Neil Finn, and was a member of The The and Electronic. Continuing to make music outside the spotlight was probably the smartest thing Marr could have done, since it allowed him to keep honing his musical skills while avoiding the inevitable comparisons to his impressive body of work with the Smiths.
When Marr began putting together his first post-Smiths guitar band, Johnny Marr + the Healers, in 1999-2000, it was big news in the British press, who had followed the Smiths’ influence on Britpop and the guitar-rock resurgence and were anxious to see what the man who had influenced a generation of British rock stars might have to say himself. To his credit, Marr wisely took baby steps with the group, spending several months writing songs before setting off on a European tour with Oasis, then allowing another year to pass before the release of the Healers’ debut EP, The Last Ride. It is only now that we’re getting the debut full-length from the group, which also includes drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr’s son) and Alonza Bevan (ex-Kula Shaker) on bass — a strong rhythm section that alternates between deep grooves and light touches as needed. While it’s true that Marr has had about 15 years for the baggage of his Smiths days to disappear, that also means he’s had 15 years for the group’s stature and anticipation for a new project to build. The questions that will be on most people’s minds upon hearing about Boomslang will be, “Does it sound like the Smiths?” or “Is it as good as the Smiths?” The short answers are “Occasionally” and “No, but did you really think it would be?”
Marr’s first “real” solo effort is a pleasant, if not always engaging, slice of post-grunge, post-Britpop guitar rock. The big surprise that most Marr fans will enjoy is that he is not only the Healers’ guitarist but also their vocalist, and he does an admirable job, playing up his melodic strengths while staying within his limited range. As far as the music goes, it is strange to witness how Marr now seems to be following in the footsteps of the bands he influenced. “The Last Ride” sounds a little like Ride while “Caught Up” (which features some mildly psychedelic backward tracking) and “Down on the Corner” wouldn’t sound out of place on an Oasis album, although they lack the bombast of the Gallagher brothers and feature more of the nimble jangling for which Marr is famous. The album lags a bit toward the end, with a few forgettable tracks like the instrumental “Headland” (which is a surprise, coming from the man who wrote “The Draize Train”) and “Long Gone”. However, Marr rebounds nicely with one of the album’s best tracks, a gentle ballad of dissatisfaction called “Something to Shout About”.
There are a couple of problems that plague Boomslang and prevent it from being a triumph. One is that Marr is not much of a lyricist. Most of his lyrics are generic tales of love or being an outcast, like those on “You Are the Magic”: “You are the magic / You make it easy / You make it easy / So easy to be me”. Lyrics like these prove that, while Marr might not need Morrissey anymore, he needs someone to give his songs some depth. The other big problem is that everything on Boomslang sounds just fine, but it doesn’t sound new or interesting. Maybe that is the negative side effect of Marr waiting so long to make his proper solo debut: The sound he pioneered is now such old hat that it doesn’t even sound that interesting coming from the source anymore. But we shouldn’t give up on Marr just yet. After all, he is an incredibly talented musician and songwriter, and his interim work between the Smiths and the Healers has been of consistently high quality. He probably still has some neat tricks up his sleeve; we’ll just have to wait for future releases to see them come to fruition.