Let’s start here: Johnny Marr is one of the most important guitarists of all time, plain and simple. He was only 23 when the Smiths disbanded in 1987, but in that brief, glorious time, he helped define post-punk as we know it and cemented his legacy as one of rock’s greatest sidemen.
But that’s the key word: sidemen. Marr is seemingly at his best when he has other creative minds to work with, offering acts from Talking Heads to Modest Mouse a signature musical service only he can provide. But as a solo artist, Marr the frontman has only been able to produce groggy rehashes of old Brit-rock tropes he helped create three decades ago.
Marr’s latest, “Call the Comet,” out Friday, is hampered by the same issues that plagued his previous two solo albums, featuring surprisingly dull hooks and lackluster vocals hobbled together by flat production that reduces Marr’s guitarwork into walls of noise. Lead single “The Tracers” relies too heavily on “woo-woos” and “oohs” to leave an impression, exemplifying how Marr isn’t the greatest lyricist to begin with. “Hey Angel,” which aims for “macho headbanger” but lands closer to “weekend dad-rock jam,” lacks the dynamic range to justify its near six-minute duration.
Songcraft is a problem throughout the album’s 12 bloated tracks, but the fact that they’re long isn’t the issue — Marr can, and has, held our attention before. It’s more that they lack conviction and structure. Tracks like “Walk Into the Sea” and “Bug” both start out as atmospheric and promising, but lose their appeal when it becomes clear that Marr and his band are just meandering around the same ideas over and over again until they eventually run out of gas.
The one near-redeeming song might be “Hi Hello,” whose chime-y groove sounds the closest Marr has come to his Smiths’ days in years — but it’s perhaps a little too close, considering that he generously borrows the strings riff from “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.” Couple that with the fact he also blatantly lifts a hook from New Order’s “Blue Monday” in the ho-hum “Actor Attractor,” and it’s hard to view the songwriting on this album as anything other than lazy and disappointing.
“Call the Comet” might be a passable album if it was the work of a young band eagerly finding its feet, but this isn’t a young band. This is an artist who inspired guitarists in some of those bands to pick up their instruments in the first place. Now it seems like he could use some inspiration himself.Robert Steiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.