Review Summary: Johnny Marr delivers another album full of strong tunes with tasty pop hooks.
Johnny Marr has had a varied and interesting career. Best known as the guitarist (and one of the two main creative forces) of the '80s British pop-rock giants The Smiths, in the thirty-plus years since that band's demise, he's been a member of The Pretenders, The The, Electronic, Modest Mouse, and The Cribs, and has done session work with a list of artists as long as a Russian winter. He briefly formed a new band with Zac Starkey in the early 2000's (Johnny Marr and the Healers), but that project fizzled out after one album. In the last five years, though, he's finally made the obvious move, and started turning out a string of solo LPs. And damned if they haven't mostly been pretty good.
Call the Comet
is Marr's third solo album, following on the heels of 2013's The Messenger
and 2014's Playland
. (He also put out a live recording, Adrenalin Baby
, in 2015). The Messenger
was absolutely first-rate, and while Playland
was much less consistent, even that one had some really good songs, most notably the single "Easy Money". Call the Comet
finds him back in top form.
The thing about Marr is this -- the man knows how to create tight, intelligent pop songs. It's as simple as that. Call the Comet
doesn't push any boundaries, and it doesn't bowl you over with its brilliance. It merely presents you with a number of tracks that are catchy and listenable without being embarrassing. What I mean by this last part is it passes the drive-thru test -- if I pull up at the window of McDonald's, and I've got this album playing on my CD player, I don't feel ashamed if I forget to turn it all the way down -- there's nothing guilty about the pleasure.
"Hi Hello", for example, which is Comet
's second single (and my favorite track) is deliberately paced. It's a little dark sounding, and a little Smiths-like. (There's a brief synth line between the chorus and the verses that takes me back to "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out".) It's main strength is that it's constructed in such a way that it builds up a certain tension during the verses, then hits you with a chorus that releases it in a satisfying way. It's like a mini-musical orgasm.
Marr isn't as distinctive a vocalist as his erstwhile bandmate Morrissey, but he's perfectly adequate. You probably won't get addicted to the album because you love his voice so much, but his vocals won't make you think twice about hitting the "Play" button either. And as for the music, there's plenty of Marr's trademark jangly guitar, but he's not afraid to throw in a keyboard now and again either.
True confession here. Sometimes when I'm writing a review, after I've given an LP an adequate number of listens and made my own notes, I'll read some other reviews just to see if other listeners are hearing some of the same things I am, or if I'm totally out in the woods on my own. And with Call the Comet
, I was shocked to learn that there's supposed to be a consistent theme running throughout, and that Comet
is Marr's attempt to create a kinder, gentler world as an alternative to the supposedly horrific one we're currently living in. And I realized when I read this how much the lyrics of this album just wash over me. Some lyricists write with a bite you can't ignore -- a great example of this is Morrissey, particularly in his work with The Smiths, when he was at his most effective. The words to a song like "Light That Doesn't Go Out" are integral, and are a major part of the song's emotional impact. For better or for worse, I don't find that in Marr's solo work. I like this album a lot, but it's based almost solely on the musical structure and listenability of the songs. He could be singing out his food shopping list, and I'd like it almost as much.
(The other thing I learned from reading alternative reviews was that the guy from Pitchfork
disparaged Marr as mostly a "hired gun" who is slowing down in his "middle age", to which I'd like to politely invite him to go *** himself. When you can write an album of songs this listenable, get back to me.)
All of Marr's solo work for the last five years has been doing pretty well in the European charts, especially in the UK. (Comet
reached as high as #7 on the British charts.) In North America, his following is narrower, but no less devoted -- I wasn't able to see him live this year because his show sold out in New York, and I get the sense that's the way it's been around the rest of the country.
In any event, my final report card for Call the Comet
looks something like this:
Music Composition: A (And make this an A+ for the best tracks, like "High Hello" and "Rise".)