Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit


Release date: 13 October 2014
Johnny Marr Playland
16 October 2014, 13:30 Written by Michael James Hall
Johnny Marr used to be in the Smiths, right? He was also in The The, Electronic and more recently Modest Mouse and The Cribs. That’s pretty cool. Flippancy aside, that roll call doesn’t even touch on his work on the Inception soundtrack, his brief tenures as sideman for Billy Bragg and collaborator of the Pet Shop Boys.

With apologies for trotting out the usual points of reference, the jist is that Marr has little to prove. Having written the book on indie, always with one eye on the heritage of rock n’ roll, and helped further that story on in the ensuing decades with his generous contributions to vital artists always more than happy to have the input and stamp of approval of the guitar legend, Johnny Marr, the common consensus seems to be, is the Man.

His second solo album proper Playland (a title taken from Johan Huizinga’s book that propagated the idea of playing as a central part of modern civilization) does little to detract from this status while also offering little that threatens to overshadow his past work.

It’s an often middling, always familiar, occasionally gorgeous album of glorious guitar work wedded to a set of indie melodies that are sometimes memorable, occasionally bland but never necessarily bad.

The highlights come when Marr is at his most muscular, tearing out jagged notes from his guitar, the instrumentation bold and upfront as on the excellent “Easy Money”. With a punk-funk hook and a memorable vocal twitch (Marr is at his best when singing rhythmically rather than strictly melodically, such are the limitations of his mid-range voice) with Marr dismissively spitting “Working for it all but it’s only money” and “It’s a fantasy, that’s money” with genuine disdain.

This assaulting approach is also apparent on “Boys Get Straight”, a thundering racket of clashing keys and guitar, martial drums and a soaring chorus. “Reactivate, reload” offers Marr before a pure rocking “WHOOO!”. It’s dark-hued and sexy with a hint of the paranoid to give extra bite.

“Dynamo” also delivers big. It boasts an ever-ascending stadium destroyer of a riff leads us left into a bizarre bridge before leaping into the kind of chorus dicks like U2 would probably pay the boy Marr millions to write for them. “Everybody believes it / You’re an actual wonder” he hums of Manchester’s CIS tower, a proud Mancunian with reason and means to celebrate.

Marr’s vocals do have a bit of the Bernard Sumner’s about them sometimes and that can take a little of the life out of otherwise decent tunes. Take “Candidate” which is eerily reminiscent of Republic era New Order, or the workmanlike delivery of “This Tension” which never gets out from under the plod of a recycled riff and bland vocal line.

He reverts to his vocal strengths on the spat verses of “25 Hours” that overcomes platitudinal lyrics to offer something that could be a distant cousin to mid-period Radiohead. This is the farthest he reaches from familiar territories.

“The Trap” is a smooth, Radio 2 friendly offering, while “Speak Out Reach Out” has some Bowie swagger, but the title track is a tough to digest mish mash of Cure-like melody, abrasive keys and clunky, cod psych lines such as “Rise up with desire to adrenalin / push the button to a higher plain.”

Playland then is an enjoyable rock record with occasional dips into complacency that are sometimes matched by its moments of bravado and energy. That it’s not a great record should make little difference to Marr’s inestimably great reputation, yet, it gets you to wondering what kind of album could he produce outside of a purely indie rock band setting (for that’s what this is despite it having only his name on the cover). How much more of this can he do? Back in 2002 he recorded a cover of “Don’t think Twice, It’s Alright” for a Dylan tribute album. Have a listen to that and consider what you might get from an album where Mr Marr was truly separated from his collaborators, just him and acoustic guitar, no longer the sideman or even the band leader, but an artist laid bare. The lad’s got potential.

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