After taking some 25 years to deliver his first proper solo album, Johnny Marr returns with a surprise sophomore set just over 18 months later. Whereas 2013’s The Messenger was a blast of nostalgia, with a distinctly dated sound that gave the impression Marr had never really moved on from his time as the other resident genius of one of the best bands of the 1980s, Playland finds the former Smiths guitarist creeping towards modernity. Some of the dance-y type of club beats that were integral to the sounds of post-Smiths, pre-Britpop alternative acts like the Stone Roses and Primal Scream show up here, which isn’t too surprising, I suppose, given how Marr‘s solo records seem to be progressing here. Like any journeyman returning from decades of wandering, he’s intent on showing us how he’s gotten here.
Whether Marr will ever catch up to the contemporary landscape is anybody’s guess, but he seems to be locked into a productive groove at the moment. Unfortunately, Marr‘s songwriting is not nearly as sharp on Playland as it was on The Messenger. Whereas that album had an assortment of killer tracks — “New Town Velocity,” “Say Demesne,” and “Generate! Generate!” made my 100 #TopTracks of 2013 list — Playland doesn’t have many standouts, with most of the album focusing more on punch than Marr‘s trademark labyrinthine guitar arrangements. The exceptions are the most fascinating songs on the album. “This Tension” bears a strong resemblance to The Messenger‘s best song, “New Town Velocity,” even it doesn’t scrape that track’s lofty heights, and “Candidate” is likewise thoughtful in its arrangement, which plays to Marr‘s strengths. The rest of the album is likely to be a grower, as some of the punchier tracks make an immediate and lasting impression — “Easy Money,” “Speak Out Reach Out” — while others are just kind of there while you’re listening to them.
None of Playland is bad (Marr is too good a craftsman for that to be the case), and in fact, pretty much all of it is good, it just isn’t quite up to par with the The Messenger (which I really liked a lot) or the Smiths’ best stuff. Recommended, but give The Messenger a spin first before you delve into this.