Johnny Marr – ‘Playland’ album review

Just 18 months after Marr’s solo debut, The Messenger, the indie guitar virtuoso returns with, well, another album.

When Playland’s first single ‘Easy Money’ dropped in mid-August it proved an unsurprising yet catchy aperitif for things to come. At the same time, the song struck me as highly reminiscent of Marr’s solo debut, with all the glorious indie guitar riffing you could hope for and a repetitive, hooky chorus. However, when the full album was released in October, it quickly became apparent that Marr was attempting to deviate from his previous familiar formula.

The opener, ‘Back in the Box’, throws listeners straight into a scolding paddling pool; there isn’t much depth, but it has no end of Marr-ish sass. Style over substance, maybe? A punchy punk bassline drives the song while prominent guitar and synth lines throw the melody in your face. This is in many ways the album at its post-punk influenced best – a New Order anthem with a Johnny Marr twist. The production and arrangement of the album is also impressive. Again, Marr, and frequent collaborator and band member Doviak, take the helm, yet as a whole, Playland feels more deliberate and better executed than The Messenger in this regard.

To a large extent, the song ‘Candidate’ can be likened to ‘Say Demesne’ from Marr’s debut; in both tracks, an insistent drum beat pushes on stifled verses until they burst into choruses featuring prominent lead guitar lines complemented by a lathering of synthesisers. However, whilst the latter’s chugging verses and attempts at haunting melodrama proved underwhelming, ‘Candidate’s tentative plucking and melodic swells prove infinitely more effective. Marr’s vocals also struck me as surprisingly deft; his breathy delivery in the verses suits the subtlety of the instrumentation, whilst the frontman cries out each chorus with conviction.

However, Playland undoubtedly has its fair share of shortcomings. Its third track, ‘Dynamo’, is an ode to a skyscraper; an interesting concept that translates into a song that (from a musical standpoint) somewhat lacks coherence. Sections of the song seem unsuited to one another – the assertive verses, the briefest of jangly pre-choruses, the choruses which bring in unappealing vocal harmonies and a rather unnecessary guitar solo that is far from Marr’s God-like best. Moreover, the finale, ‘Little King’, left me yearning for more depth. The track seems to do little more than go through a tick box of post-punk influenced tropes. Simple synth and guitar refrain? Check!

Released only eighteen months after Marr’s solo debut album, Playland sadly may prove only a minor blip in the context of his long and distinguished musical career. Marr undoubtedly touches on a number of interesting concepts, yet is hardly a lyricist of his The Smiths bandmate Morrissey’s calibre. He delivers some degree of sonic nuance with his post-punk influences and often deftly utilised synthesisers, yet it can hardly be considered out of his comfort zone. The album takes few risks, but if you enjoyed Marr’s last album, you’re sure to love this one too.

By Gabriel Burrow