As the Smiths’ composer, arranger and musical director, Johnny Marr crafted songs that were eclectic yet unfussy, classic yet immediate, punchy yet fluid. After dozens of subsequent collaborations, some more fruitful than others, the pop polymath can still do that. The Messenger is the best album in the Smiths-onian tradition since Morrissey’s 2004 You Are the Quarry, boasting an urgency that seems to stem from the rediscovery of what one song title calls the singer-guitarist’s “European Me.”
Marr relocated to Portland in 2005 to join Modest Mouse. That gig turned out to be temporary, but the musician and his family stayed in Oregon till last year, when he returned to Britain to record what’s billed as his first solo album. Never mind about the decade-old Boomslang, credited to Johnny Marr + the Healers, but built on the same essential model as The Messenger. Blending Brit-pop and Brit-punk, but with echoes of American funk, disco and folk-rock, both albums jangle and strut.
Marr has become a more assured singer, which is one of several ways this album improves on Boomslang. He can’t quite carry the album’s slow-and-solemn ballad, “Say Demesne,” which sounds as if it might have been written for a former collaborator. (Not Morrissey — Bryan Ferry.) But Marr does fine when his voice is paced by the Jam-like strum and multi-tracked chorale of “New Town Velocity” or the cantering guitars of “Sun & Moon” and “Generate! Generate!”
Marr has become something of a protest singer, skeptically contemplating technology, consumer culture and British provincialism. Although The Messenger occasionally sounds like Marr’s imitation of Noel Gallagher’s imitation of Marr, the former cohorts who clearly had the most influence on the album are the spiky, neo-punk Cribs. With storming rockers like “Upstarts,” the 49-year-old Marr recaptures the frustration of a teenage guitar-slinger trapped in a north-of-Britain nowheresville.
DOWNLOAD: “Sun & Moon,” “European Me,” “Upstarts,” “Generate! Generate!” MARK JENKINS