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Johnny Marr - Call the Comet Music Album Reviews

Johnny Marr - Call the Comet Music Album Reviews
The former Smiths guitarist absorbs the political shocks of 2016 on a characteristically polished album that imagines life in an alternate universe that values kindness, curiosity, and intelligence.

Like many citizens of Earth in the year 2018, Johnny Marr wishes he could live in a different world. Sorting through the political wreckage of 2016 and its twin seismic shocks, Brexit and Donald J. Trump winning the American presidency, the former Smiths guitarist wondered what it would be like to reside in an alternate universe, one that valued kindness, curiosity, and intelligence instead of crassness and cash. Marr channeled that thought experiment into Call the Comet, his third and most thematically ambitious solo album.

Despite its sci-fi framing, Call the Comet isn’t a concept record, nor does it sound especially futuristic. The album comes into focus, on opening track “Rise,” via a pulsating guitar line that faintly echoes the tremolo riff that fueled “How Soon Is Now?”—and that isn’t the only moment that plays on the legacy of the Smiths. “Hi Hello,” one of three pre-release singles, threatens to slide into the comforting confines of the melody to “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.” But these feints at the past aren’t self-aware nostalgia; they’re signs that the ever-restless Marr—a rock star who chose to spend a quarter-century as a hired gun, roaming from project to project—is starting to slow down in his middle age.

Some of this settling is literal. After an extended sojourn in Portland, Oregon, Marr relocated to his native Manchester early in the current decade. The move coincided with the launch of his solo career via 2013’s The Messenger. (A decade prior, he’d released Boomslang with his short-lived band the Healers.) The album fused the muscular aspects of the Smiths with remnants of the sleek synths of his Bernard Sumner collaboration, Electronic, resulting in a signature sound that existed comfortably out of time. Evocative of pre-Nirvana, pre-Britpop college rock, the music was nonetheless too accomplished and too comfortable in its own skin to access the hunger of a young indie act desperate to prove itself.

Marr stuck to this template on 2014’s Playland, and he doesn’t really shake things up on Call the Comet, either. Like its two predecessors, the album was produced by the guitarist in conjunction with James Doviak, who has been in Marr’s orbit since he joined the Boomslang tour in 2003, and their comfortable chemistry is evident in the album’s cozy familiarity. Even the electronic accents that could be characterized as left turns, like the ping-pong rhythmic loop that runs throughout “New Dominions” or the chilly New Romantic bounce of “My Eternal,” belong within Marr’s carefully cultivated lineage. However forward-thinking its lyrical content may be, Call the Comet remains anchored by his well-appointed traditionalism. That conservative approach to songwriting is buttressed by Marr’s estimable studio skills: Every harmony, riff, and cymbal splash is in its right place.

Such consummate craft has its allure. Call the Comet is a towering aural monolith: It glistens and gleams, its parts so delicately fused they can be hard to untangle. The album is so densely packed that it’s easy to miss Marr’s overarching themes, a shame exacerbated by his habitual neglect to draw attention to his lyrics. A pleasantly flat, unassuming singer, he functions mostly as a conduit for his melodies, which is only a detriment on an album with so much potential thematic resonance.

Only a close listen—preferably with a lyric sheet in hand—reveals the social consciousness of Call the Comet. Marr kicks off the album with “Rise,” a warning that “it’s the dawn of the dogs” delivered to a pulse that’s not a far cry from The The’s roiling Dusk. This darkness extends into “Bug,” whose shimmering, insistent surface obscures Marr’s assertion, “Everybody feels the aching/Population is sick and shaking.” The illness is cured by the titular heroes of “The Tracers,” otherworldly empaths who come to Earth because “they know we’ve lost the way.” Marr doesn’t follow a precise narrative, but his ultimate destination is “Spiral Cities,” a utopia where all the residents are united by open, observant eyes and a desire to get lost in the glow of love.

Once you dig through the layers of musical gloss to unearth Marr’s message, his mild vocal performance jibes with his idealism. He’s writing with compassion, not anger on Call the Comet; this isn’t protest music so much as a plea to our better angels. Such an open heart is uncommon in these combative times, and Marr’s sincerity gives his flawed album some appeal.

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