What superhuman effort it must have taken, during the recording of The Smiths’ 1984 classic ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ for Johnny Marr not to lean over to Morrissey and say, “Y’know what, we get the gist, but how much better would this song be if it was about gangs of angry toddlers smashing bank windows?” How did the now 49-year-old Marr fail to halt the writing of The Cribs’ 2009 single ‘Cheat On Me’ and go, “Nice concept, Ryan, but how about if it’s the guy who’s cheating, he’s a Lottery winner and is having illicit sex with a life-support machine behind his wife’s back?” And how could he have stopped himself from listening to Modest Mouse’s 2007 album ‘We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank’ without saying, “Good work, guys, but the album could’ve done with more murdered Russian supermodels, maudlin prostitutes and kids having plastic surgery to look like cats.”
But Johnny pottered along for decades, lacing other people’s albums with his legendary licks, saving the above ideas for his first ever solo album (except the one about the kiddie-cats, which he cut out at the last minute). An album recorded in Berlin and built around the theme of cities and buildings – our formative love affairs and hateful splits with them. ‘The Messenger’ is essentially the scene in South Park where Stan’s dad finally gets access to the extremely limited supply of online porn, only Johnny’s copiously spouting gallons of pent-up ideas.
Each tune throws up a different style, creating a one-man compilation album that rifles through 25 years of lush or edgy genres, perfecting every one. Opener ‘The Right Thing Right’ pays homage to the new wave of northern soul all-nighters to tell a tale about how we’re cyber-tracked and cookie-profiled so our Facebook pages can be plagued with exactly the right Dogging In Dagenham websites (we all get those, right?). Then ‘I Want The Heartbeat’ tells the story of a Lottery winner leaving his wife for a heart-rate monitor to a Horrors-style motorik stampede. ‘Upstarts’ finds Johnny imagining pre-teens rioting against primary school fee hikes over a Cribs pop squeal.
Marr’s musical masks switch as adroitly as the big issues he sketches around. ‘Word Starts Attack’ tackles the Instagram dependencies of Generation Txt in the form of funk-punk; ‘Say Demesne’ confronts the tragedies of teenage prostitution via ’80s synth-noir. And thus Marr builds the unlikeliest of conceits – a record by an expat approaching 50 that encapsulates the modern British urban youth experience.
‘The Messenger’ isn’t just a summary of everything worthwhile in contemporary rock music, it’s an insightful and informed dissection of life in 2013 and all the futile iOS updates, cyberstalking conglomerates and financial travesties that clog up the spaces between us. In a world claiming to connect us all, it argues, we’re getting more and more dislocated. “Screens are replacing faces and hearts,” Marr told NME recently, and Johnny’s solution is to find comfort and companionship in the real-life flesh and stone around us.
So how didn’t we notice that the quiet straight man of the indie era was secretly one of its most confrontational and natural born rock stars? Next week, Brian from Yeah Yeah Yeahs turns out to be this generation’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard.