Born too late to be a sixties icon and too early to be a Britpop superstar, Johnny Marr occupies a strange position in guitar history. As one-fourth of eighties alternative rock legends The Smiths, he seemed to be a guitar god in a music world that had long since abandoned idol worship. Undeterred, he wrote the vast majority of The Smith’s catalog together with Morrissey and, after leaving the group in 1987, kept busy for several decades collaborating with Electronic, Modest Mouse, Pet Shop Boys, and The Cribs – to name just a few. But prior to last year’s positively received The Messenger, Marr’s remarkable discography featured no solo albums.
If Marr has any lasting insecurities about his name standing alone on an album cover, he refuses to show it on Playland, a stellar sophomore effort that surges forward with the determined immediacy of a locomotive. Marr’s brilliance lies in how he keeps the train firmly on the rails, allowing the songs and his signature solos to reach their full potential without dragging the album out too long. The album clocks in just short of forty-five minutes, and since there is no coming up for air in Playland, it’s for the best.
Despite its cheery title, Playland is a driven, commanding record. At times, it is a darker endeavor, filled with bold bass lines and fierce riffs. Even the slightly more optimistic-sounding “Dynamo” and “Little King” are laced with the album’s overarching ferocity. From start to finish, Marr is either unable or unwilling to completely abandon his sonic intensity. Either way, it serves the album well.
The first half of the album brims with highlights. Marr comes out swinging with “Back In the Box,” while “Easy Money” is an earworm destined for prime placement on any and all eventual greatest hits albums. The jangly “Candidate” reveals the guitarist in top form. And while he doesn’t lose his way at any point in the eleven-song tracklist, he takes a somewhat confusing detour into overproduced territory just past the halfway mark. Thankfully, the album rediscovers itself in time to come to a triumphant close.
Playland is a force, simultaneously fearless, masterfully controlled, and entertaining. After thirty-plus years as a musician and songwriter (and one NME Godlike Genius Award to boot), Marr knows who he is and what he does best. It is that exact wisdom and self-awareness that makes Playland superb. Simply put, Marr rolls out a full roster of songs that sound dang good.
And at the end of the day, an album that sounds good can go a long way.