Despite the quick breakup of his most famous band, his pedestrian voice and his career spent in the shadow of a misanthrope he hasn't played with in a quarter-century, Johnny Marr has led a charmed life. As a teenager in the south Manchester district of Wythenshawe, Marr possessed a quiet confidence, a sense of style and an awareness that playing the guitar would define his life.
He first joined bands at age 14 and subsequently fell in love with a 15-year-old named Angie, to whom, at 50, he is still married. Marr was still in his teens, too, when he knocked on the door of one Steven Morrissey, a fellow Mancunian, and so began a five-year collaboration they called the Smiths. Almost immediately and very briefly, they were the biggest band in England, bursting supernova-like after four LPs and a slew of singles. Still, they earned a reputation as one of the great acts in pop music history.
While the Smiths were fronted by their prickly, Oscar Wilde-loving lead singer, Marr and his subtle guitar heroics were most responsible for the sound. Marr grew up worshipping Keith Richards, Neil Young and Irish electric blues guitarist Rory Gallagher, but the intricate, lyrical picking of acts such as Pentangle influenced his work, too—as deeply uncool as that might have been in the punk era. Marr managed to integrate his rock underpinnings and plectrum-derived delicacy, shaping arpeggios that served as stained-glass runways for his partner's doleful baritone. He could stomp and kick, yes, but he's always been a colorist, not a soloist.
Together, Morrissey and Marr wrote some 70 songs, often released as singles that shot up the U.K. charts. In the minds of many, M&M defined an era. But the Smiths disintegrated into litigious acrimony and press-abetted backbiting, and unlike virtually every broken-up band of note of the past few decades, the Smiths have not reunited.
Morrissey has found other musical collaborators, fronting bands versed in sturdy rock and rockabilly that could animate his comically morbid lyrics. But Marr felt no need to go out and find himself a new partner. Instead, he slipped the strictures of the Smiths aesthetic and became a sideman, adding his signature licks to a diverse set of songs by The Pretenders, Talking Heads, Kirsty MacColl, Billy Bragg and Pet Shop Boys. He worked within the dusky blues incarnation of The The and formed Electronic, an aptly named partnership with New Order's Bernard Sumner.
The Smiths had given Marr a lot to live up to, but he never tried; he stepped toward the shadows and added his own instantly identifiable touch.
By the time Marr decided to put together The Healers, a band of his own, the millennium had turned, and the world seemed to have left Marr. The press greeted the record with universal disappointment.
Since that rare misstep, though, Marr has rebounded. There were extended stints with indie favorites Modest Mouse and The Cribs, a few semesters as a visiting professor of music at an English university, even a side gig with Hans Zimmer on the soundtrack for Inception. Just this year, Marr won the "Godlike Genius" award from New Musical Express, the magazine that recently proclaimed The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead as the greatest album of all time.
Once you've set the world on fire, inspired a generation, played with the greatest of the great, and grown very, very rich in the process, what's left to conquer?
Oh, yes, the solo album.
The lone Healers record, 2003's Boomslang, was billed as a band effort, even though Marr sang lead vocals. But The Messenger, released in February, is Marr's first album under his own name. Once you resign yourself to the fact that Moz's pained croon won't soon soar in, the record's joys are readily apparent and often transporting, much like any comprehensive traipse through the moods and colors of Marr's musical palette. The album is bookended by a couple of stunners: Opener "The Right Time Right" is a giddy rush, while closer "World Starts Attack" is a tightly coiled rocker that emanates leather-jacketed menace.
Besides a few songs that feel underdeveloped, The Messenger's only drawback is the fact that singing seems to be Marr's sole musical foible. Sure, he does the job, and he's grown into the role of a singer—it's certainly an improvement over Boomslang. Still, when you have songs and sounds as distinct as these, the presence of a distinctive vocalist might fully animate them. It'd be egregious for Marr to be a kickass singer, anyway. Maybe this is nature's way of keeping him humble.
Marr's 2013 tour isn't really a showcase for The Messenger, nor is it an ego trip, a cynical cash-in or a way for him to reassert his vibrancy. This is a chance to see a bird in flight—a rare bird, it should be said, marked by beautiful plumage (Marr continues to sport one of rock's great hairdos).
Indeed, seeing Marr promises to be a little more gracious than seeing your typical '80s music icon. Songs from The Messenger will alternate with select moments from his back catalog, including some dance fare from Electronic. But there will be Smiths, too. You are almost sure to hear "How Soon Is Now," because he knows it's expected.
Unlike his best-known collaborator, Johnny Marr seems to want to see you happy. He's had it good, after all.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The happy Smith."