Is There Life in Marr?

By: Marcelo Báez

Although hardcore Smiths fans might hate to admit it, Johnny Marr has been little more than a part-time producer (Electronic) and a glorified guitar-for-hire (the Pretenders, Modest Mouse, the The, Bryan Ferry, etc.) since his legendary band broke up. And that’s cool, really, since nobody expected Marr to go all Dave Grohl and start another super-successful band right away. But in 2003 Johnny finally worked up the nerve to put himself front and center with Johnny Marr + the Healers. Boomslang, their debut LP, didn’t impress many people, but it wasn’t completely horrendous either (“[I]t’s got all the atmosphere of a great rock record, but not the guts of one,” wrote Rolling Stone). The mild-to-negative reviews must have gotten to the Healers because they never released a follow up to Boomslang.

So was Johnny doomed to be a fancy session player/tagalong? It sure seemed that way—until last year, when Marr released The Messenger. His first fully solo LP received better reviews than almost everything he’s ever been involved with since the Smiths. Personally, I never listened to The Messenger because, as a Smiths fan, Marr had used all the get-out-of-jail-free cards I’d given him. Not because his previous involvements in music—either as a producer or henchman—have been particularly terrible, but because none have been memorable. (In all honesty, I can’t name one single non-Smiths Johnny Marr song to save my life, and I’ve listened to a good 80% of what the 50-year-old Brit has put out.)

But on Tuesday I fired up a certain music streaming program and Playland, Marr’s second solo record, was prominently featured under the “new releases” tab. I decided to give Johnny one last chance to win me back.

At first, I half-expected Marr’s new music to sound like dad-rock, but listening to the first song off Playland didn’t immediately make me want to click away. Clean, punchy and filled with Marr’s unmistakable guitar work, “Back in the Box” came off as respectable rock. “Easy Money,” the album’s lead single, follows and it sounds like loud, fuzzy, danceable Britpop—which is precisely what I expected.

Marr will never be capable of reproducing Morrissey’s Kermit the Frog–like vocal antics (just like Morrissey will never be able to play a guitar like Marr), but it turns out, Johnny is no slouch on the mic. On “Candidate” and “The Trap,” for example, Johnny’s voice sounds remarkably clean and young. He’s no Brett Anderson or [insert your favorite middle-aged, British rock singer here], but the timid guitar legend does all right for himself. I’ll put it to you like this: I’d much rather hear Johnny Marr sing than Morrissey play a guitar.

Playland is far from flawless, though. The second half of the record seems to lose some of its punch by veering towards more serious, generic-rock-song territory. The snazzy and flawless production partially serves to distract from the stale songwriting of songs like “Boys Get Straight” and “This Tension,” but it’s like rolling up the windows while driving over roadkill.

I probably won’t get a new stack of imaginary board game cards printed for the ex-Smith, but Playland did make me want to roll the dice on the The Messenger. With that, I’m off to play some Marrnopoly.

LOGISTICS: Playland by Johnny Marr, available now

Marcelo Baéz is a writer, DJ, and musician based in NYC. When he's not producing "Rico Suave" parties, he releases music under P3CULIAR.