Johnny Marr is, without question, one of the most influential guitarists of his or any other generation. He was only a kid when he formed a band that would retroactively define an era, and over the last 35 years his distinctive riffs have been relentlessly ripped off by millions of misunderstood youngsters who managed to pick up a second-hand Fender. Since the demise of The Smiths, countless acts from Talking Heads to Modest Mouse have capitalized on his abilities, infusing their sound with his signature touch. However, even after all of his contributions to the world of music, Marr has struggled to find his footing as a frontman.
While it is assuredly more conceptually engaging than anything his former bandmate and would-be rival has put out in recent years, Call the Comet, his third solo album, is a muddled utopian dreamscape that once again proves that his craftsmanship may not be best suited to take centerstage.
As solo artists, Marr’s advantage over Morrissey remains his ability to churn out hooky, infectious melodies. Tracks like “Hi Hello” and “Actor Attractor” are memorable, lingering earworms that make for a fitting soundtrack to a summer hangout. However, Marr never knows when to reign them in. Nearly every song on Call the Comet overstays its welcome by at least a minute or two, leading to an overstuffed album that runs for an entire hour. These Britpop dance tunes earn their listeners’ attention, but certainly not for five minutes a piece. Marr is the unchecked driving force behind the record, writing and producing each track on his own, rather than calling upon frequent collaborator Doviak for a second opinion. He could have used the input of another to help him trim the fat off these catchy but directionless songs.
This sole ownership gives Marr the opportunity to reach for more ambitious heights than on his previous solo efforts. His gloomy stroll into the realm of science fiction, “Walk into the Sea,” builds its swirling chords atop a foundation of spoken word musings, leading with a two-minute instrumental opening. To varying degrees of success, Marr is easing his way out of his comfort zone with Call the Comet, testing the waters of experimentation. Even still, as he tosses in every suggestion from the drawing board, the album often lacks stability, aimlessly meandering in the hopes that at least some of the new ideas will stick the landing.
And some of them do. Unfortunately, so many of his solo tracks feel like repetitive carbon-copies of the pop tropes Marr helped to create decades ago. Songs like “The Tracers” and “Rise” could have been released in 1996 (or 1986, for that matter) with almost no alterations and receive the same reception. As depressing as it may be for his devoted fanbase, albums like this one make a convincing argument that Johnny Marr has simply entered the dad rock canon as a nostalgia act, without anything inspired left to say. Even in its addictive, bubbly moments, Call the Comet feels more like a series of zeros and ones than any kind of fresh artistic statement.
Call the Comet is a mess. There are moments of uncompromised wonder sprinkled throughout, but they often get bogged down in the fog of ambivalence surrounding them. Johnny Marr is a musician of immeasurable talent, and he’s often been eclipsed by Britpop leviathan he toiled to charter. But as a solo artist, his endowments are squandered. His third studio album could benefited from the added guidance of other savvy performers. As it stands, however, Call the Comet is a bloated, unimaginative record that undermines its central thesis.