JOHNNY MARR Call The Comet

The ex-Smith’s most pow­er­ful solo LP yet. By Stephen Troussé 8/10

UNCUT - - New Albums -

In Set The Boy Free, his brisk, bullish au­to­bi­og­ra­phy pub­lished in 2016, there’s a great photo of Johnny Marr from 1981 or 1982, still work­ing at X-Clothes in Manch­ester, but clearly al­ready in the green room of pop his­tory. He’s posed im­mac­u­lately in the cor­ner, dressed head to toe in Wild One leather, eye­ing the cam­era with teenage Brando de­fi­ance, as if de­mand­ing of the nascent ’80s pop scene, “Well, whad­dya got?”

The teenage Marr was a mu­si­cian of freak­ish fa­cil­ity: you can eas­ily imag­ine al­ter­na­tive ’80s time­lines where he led a Fac­tory avant-funk act, fin­ger­picked his way through a Pen­tan­gu­lar folk ca­reer or crafted im­mac­u­late scally so­phis­tipop

à la The Pale Foun­tains. But it’s the Johnny Marr in this photo that you can imag­ine has been bid­ing his time to record Call The

Comet, his third, most pow­er­ful and most co­he­sive solo record yet.

In a funny way it’s an al­bum of BIG MU­SIC, a peer of the Bun­ny­men’s Heaven

Up Here, Sim­ple Mind’s Em­pires And Dance, the John McGeoch of the Ban­shees’ Juju and Mag­a­zine’s The Cor­rect Use Of

Soap. If The Mes­sen­ger and Play­land saw him ded­i­cated to writ­ing pre­cisely con­cise and askew new-wave post-punk pop, and oc­ca­sion­ally giv­ing the im­pres­sion he would very much have liked to com­pose

the first Franz Fer­di­nand al­bum, here he gives free rein to a more grandiose spirit, chan­nelling some of the sub­lime scale of his sound­track work with Hans Zimmer.

“Rise” sets the Olympian tone, sound­ing un­can­nily like the theme tune for Sky’s

Su­per Sun­day as it might be per­formed in the fu­ture dystopia of Di­a­mond Dogs: “Now here they come, it’s the dawn of the dogs/They howl and they howl and they

never let up.” Lead sin­gle “The Trac­ers” ups the tempo and in­ten­sity, evok­ing that mid-’80s mo­ment when new Or­der (“Sun­rise”), the Ban­shees (“Cities In Dust”) and even Killing Joke and Sis­ters of Mercy mapped out a mag­nif­i­cent cin­e­mas­cope gothic pop. It may be pos­si­ble to tease out the threads of some sci-fi al­bum con­cept in the lyrics (“Trac­ers know we’ve lost our way/Take all the love we’ve lost and scat­tered”), but in truth the track, and the al­bum, are most thrilling when Marr sim­ply surfs the scin­til­lat­ing waves of gui­tar with word­less sighs and woo-hoos. In­deed at times it’s tempt­ing to imag­ine an en­tirely word­less, shoegaze in­stru­men­tal ver­sion of the al­bum.

Even af­ter three solo al­bums, it’s fair to say that Marr still doesn’t seem like a nat­u­ral front­man. In foot­ball terms, fronting his own band re­quires him to be a kind of deep-ly­ing false nine, or, like Roberto Firmino, one of those play­ers who strive to be ev­ery­where on the pitch at once. You sense he might be more com­fort­able as David Silva, mas­ter­fully con­duct­ing play from the mid­dle of the park.

In con­ver­sa­tion with Bernard But­ler last year for a ra­dio show on the reis­sue of The

Queen Is Dead, Marr talked about how the rel­a­tively un­her­alded “never Had no One Ever” was in fact the key to the whole record, dis­tilled from a mem­ory of play­ing along to “I need Some­body” from Raw

Power in his bed­room, il­lu­mi­nated by the moon and the street­lights. That lonely sodium street­light sound – his equiv­a­lent of Dy­lan’s wild mer­cury – is all over Call

The Comet, no­tably on the blood­cur­dling solo of “Hey An­gel” and the stark acous­tic strum of “Day In Day Out”. But, though he’s now an as­sured singer, Johnny is no Iggy. There’s no shame in that – no­body else is ei­ther. But un­like Siouxsie or Ian Mc­Cul­loch or even Bernard Sum­ner, he can’t coast through a song on vo­cal charisma alone. It might be best to ap­pre­ci­ate Call The

Comet as a sub­lime sound­track, pos­si­bly the most at­mo­spheric, widescreen gui­tar al­bum you’ll hear all year: from the haunted shim­mer of “Hi Hello” to the cracked Bowie of “Ac­tor-At­trac­tor”, from the Sim­ple Minds sta­dium fu­tur­ism of “Spi­ral Cities” to the cor­us­cat­ing Ban­shee screech of “My Eter­nal” and the spec­tac­u­lar sun­set of “A Dif­fer­ent Gun”. It feels very con­sciously the third part of Marr’s mod­ern Manch­ester tril­ogy: if The Mes­sen­ger re­vis­ited his Wythen­shawe street-urchin am­bi­tion and Play­land cri­tiqued the cos­metic glit­ter of the 21st-cen­tury me­trop­o­lis, then de­spite ev­ery­thing, here he’s dream­ing of a bet­ter world. With maybe only Paul Weller as a peer, he’s still re­fus­ing to look back, to re­form, to trade on his awe­some back pages. Al­most 40 years on, he’s still un­mis­take­ably the cock­sure kid from that ’80s clothes shop mak­ing his own de­mands on the fu­ture.

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