Everyone knows who Johnny Marr is – the mercurial guitar god whose inspired licks have blessed such greats as The The, The Cribs, Modest Mouse and of course, The inimitable Smiths. Here we have his second full length solo effort Playland, just shy of 18 months after his debut The Messenger. Marr is generally known for his guitar work in the aforementioned groups, his name is never too far from the adjectives “jangly”, “bright” or “guitar”. However, these adjectives have no place in describing this sophomore effort; in fact, on the contrary – this album is less than jangly, certainly less than bright and sometimes it’s hard to tell there’s a guitar god involved at all.
Although it may sound like this is gearing up to be a scathing review, it’s really not. The fact is this isn’t a bad album, it could just be so much more than The Messenger 2.0 which, sadly, is what it is. It has its high points – standout track “Dynamo” producing most of them. Aptly for its title, there’s a tangible shift in feel and melody between verse and chorus, the track compliments itself well and its shimmering atmosphere and background synth puts one in mind of the 80s dream pop scene. Having said this, at its core it’s infected with the same formulaic structure as every other track on the album: a driving, punchy rhythm section and some painfully unimaginative guitar work, coupled with highly unambitious vocals. The album is set up for this formula perfectly by the opening track “Back in the Box”, which is basically exactly as I just described.
There are a couple of highlights and slight variations from the formula, however, and it would be unfair to say otherwise. “25 Hours” manages to force in some nice guitar work between the Hard-Fi-esque vocals and predictably punchy rhythm section. Really though, it is fascinating to listen to the solo album of a guitar god and notice the distinct lack of actual real guitar work, save the odd bend or slide seemingly put in just for the sake of having a guitar part because, y’know, it is Johnny Marr. Another highlight is “The Trap”, with Marr giving himself a rare chance to actually showcase his admittedly limited vocal ability, although it’s a nice change to hear him singing rather than basically speaking a bit louder than usual, but even this song seems to grow tired of itself after repeating the line “it’s a trap” enough times to render it more like Marr’s catchphrase than a certain fish-headed space admiral.
I’m a huge Smiths fan and every single time I’ve seen Johnny Marr speak on camera I’ve found him to be an interesting, understated and intelligent man. However, this album unfortunately possesses none of those characteristics – it’s good to dance to, but not good for much else. If you were expecting Marr to branch out, push himself and be the ambitious, mercurial, dynamic guitarist/vocalist we all know he can be, you’ll be disappointed, just as I was. It’s nowhere near the worst album of the year, but it’s a fair way off the best.