‘Tuned In’ review: Johnny Marr’s message needs a better mouthpiece

Johnny Marr's 'The Messenger'

Johnny Marr's "The Messenger"

Thirty years after The Smiths began building their reputation as one of the best bands in history, Johnny Marr is releasing his solo debut album, “The Messenger.”

Marr’s searing guitar was a singular complement to the plaintive vocals of eccentric Smiths singer Morrissey, and it would have been hard to imagine one without the other as they pioneered the way for post-punk alternative rock. And yet the band broke up in 1987, so it’s been one without the other for a quarter of a century now.

For his part, Marr has been relentlessly active, a member of numerous bands including Electronic, Modest Mouse and The Cribbs as well as a collaborator with several others. But technically, “The Messenger” is the solo debut for the 49-year-old transplant from Manchester, England, to Portland, Ore.

And Marr’s signature sound is fully intact, providing a nostalgic journey, perhaps, but not one that feels anachronistic.

“The Messenger” is built on his shimmering squalls that stir his trademark improbable blend of gloom, romance and mischief. Although there are tedious stretches that conjure temporary haze, Marr’s riffs are both bracing and alluring, sometimes jangling and sometimes droning. His melodies elicit diverse emotions rarely achieved by a guitarist.

That said, there’s not much obvious message to “The Messenger.” Marr’s vocals are average, and his lyrics are forgettable. His delivery is dexterous enough to stir infection on “Lockdown,” meld with the rabble-rousing construction of “I Want the Heartbeat” and offer a fitting croon for “Say Demesne.” Yet his singing is only fitfully commanding and often sounds like a rote exercise.

So while the cascading cadences and riveting instrumental breaks do their part to keep the momentum going, “The Messenger” lacks an equally compelling mouthpiece. And the gap is distracting.

Nevertheless, those who can listen to Marr without pining away for Morrissey’s voice to surface in the mix might find “The Messenger” suitably rewarding.

Rating: 3 stars (out of five)

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