There probably aren’t too many comparisons you can draw between Johnny Marr’s fledgling career as a solo artist and Morrissey’s 26 years of heroic ups, disastrous downs and occasional exiles. Nevertheless, both men have found recent success by adopting pretty much the same approach, arguably the only sensible one for fifty-something indie-rock godheads to take: preach to the converted. As such, there was little in the way of boundary-pushing on Marr’s last album, 2013’s ‘The Messenger’, but then, there was never supposed to be. It was Marr at his most Marr-esque, operating at his nth degree: an admirably crowd-pleasing album from a man who, for the last 25 years, had been more concerned with other people’s crowds than his own.
‘Playland’ is a sequel of sorts in that regard. Arriving just 18 months later, it reads from the same classic British indie, new wave and post-punk hymn sheets as its predecessor, but coming from the guy who helped author significant swathes of those hymn sheets in the first place, it’s difficult to take umbrage. It’s a continuation in other ways, too: just as Marr’s singing voice is better than you’d suppose a lead guitarist’s to be, his lyrics are more nuanced than you’d necessarily expect from a guy who made his name writing music for others. Where most in Marr’s situation might write songs of drinking, touring, domestication and thinly veiled attacks on former bandmates, ‘The Messenger’ offered a series of wry observations on the surreal side of modern life: men falling in love with machines, the increasing mechanisation of human interaction, even the growth of European federalism. The words weren’t simply there to fill the spaces between licks.
‘Playland’, then, takes its title from Dutch historian Johan Huizinga’s 1938 book ‘Homo Ludens’ – also known as ‘Man The Player’ and ‘Man Player’ – which imagines the concept of play as an organising principle of society, while lead single ‘Easy Money’ is a twitchy, maddeningly catchy ode to the root of all evil (and some pretty great rock’n’roll songs). Another standout, the shimmering ‘Dynamo’, is a love song to Manchester’s CIS tower (“A vision in glass”), suggesting that Marr’s legendary good taste extends even to skyscrapers. In basic terms, if ‘The Messenger’ was everything anyone could want a Johnny Marr solo record to be, ‘Playland’ is pretty much all anyone could hope for as a follow-up. ‘The Trap’, with its airy vocal and high-fret Peter Hook undertow, almost sounds like a lost Electronic (Marr’s ‘990s supergroup project with Bernard Sumner) single. Elsewhere, the riff of ‘This Tension’ is so brazenly meta-Marr it can’t help but bring a smile to your face, while ‘Boys Get Straight’ is The Smiths with jagged, recalibrated post-punk edges (the opening riff comes cigarette-paper close to being ‘What Difference Does It Make’) and its anti-consumerist polemic is delivered with aplomb.
Anyone mistaking all this for dog-whistle discourse with his old musical partner, however, should forget it. At this point, a Smiths reunion seems not just unlikely, but unneccessary – it’s been a long while since either man seemed to need the other less. In spite of his recent health problems and seeming inability to retain cordiality with a record label, Morrissey has just delivered one of his finest ever solo albums. Marr, on the other hand, having played the role of trusted lieutenant for everyone from Billy Bragg to Hans Zimmer, finally seems to be excelling as his own boss. He’s found his niche, and that niche is Johnny fucking Marr.