By Geoffrey Himes
Friday, April 26, 2013
There are times when Johnny Marr’s guitar sounds so enormous and glorious that it almost becomes a second lead singer in whatever rock-and-roll band he’s part of. That was true of the Smiths, the British post-punk quartet that made Marr famous, and the Cribs and Modest Mouse, the groups he joined after the Smiths shattered at the peak of their popularity. But the guitar overwhelms the lead singer on his 2003 album, “Boomslang,” and his most recent work, “The Messenger.”
It’s not that Marr is a weak vocalist. He’s respectably competent, but he can’t compete with the resplendent tone and unfailing invention of his own guitar parts. In like fashion, his lyrics are merely clever rather than moving. As a result, when the songs on “The Messenger” become too wordy, there’s insufficient room for Marr’s guitar to cast its spell.
But on such uptempo songs as “European Me,” “Lockdown” and “Upstarts,” the lyrics are pithy and punchy, leaving lots of room for the guitar to articulate what the words imply. On “Upstarts,” Marr sums up the experience of becoming too famous too quickly by singing, “The underground is overground / The overground will pull you down” and then allowing his alternately wailing, stuttering and wistful guitar passages to evoke the ambition, conflict and regret behind those lines.