Johnny Marr, long-time guitarist, songwriter, and sideman from the legendary band, The Smiths, released his third studio album this year, and I felt the need to listen to it immediately. Ironically, my first experience with Marr is not with The Smiths. I first heard of the guitarist during his work with Modest Mouse for their album We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, an album that I really had a lot of love for as a teenager. Since then I have learned about just how big a figure someone like Marr is within the music industry, but I cannot say I heard much else from him other than the requisite The Smiths albums that are virtually required listening for anyone who claims to be an indie rock or alternative rock fan. Honestly, I have listened to solo projects like this one before, and usually what I have come to expect is a demonstration of the craft in a rather rudimentary effort that does little but re-establish that this person is a good musician. The few exceptions have been albums where an older artist does something completely different than what they have ever done and either hits the nail on the head or damages their legacy. I certainly hoped that last case would not be what happened here on Call the Comet.
Luckily, I can report that this album is pretty high quality. Unfortunately, I have to qualify that by saying it is very much in the former category: Johnny Marr is not breaking any new ground here, but rather making an album of generally good music in the style he is known for. In fact, the tracks “Hi Hello” and “Day In Day Out” are so completely in the style of The Smiths, lyrically and musically, that I almost felt the need to check and make sure these were not Smith’s songs with Marr’s voice over the top of them. On these tracks, the similarity is so stark that it works to their detriment, as I feel like I heard these songs done better before. However, just judging them by themselves, “Hi Hello” is a rather fun and brilliant little song, and “Day In Day Out” is not a bad one either, though “Hi Hello” is certainly the better of the two, making a much deeper impact overall. In fact, I had to remind myself of “Day In Day Out” for this review, which is not a good sign.
However, I am happy to report that this is the worst it gets in terms of similarity to Marr’s old band, though this is pretty squarely within the realm of traditional indie rock. Regardless though, I would argue that Call the Comets is an example of this style done very well. Quality craftsmanship takes precedence over the need to experiment. For example, the album’s first three tracks–“Rise,” “The Tracers,” and “Hey Angel”–are all intense, slightly hazy indie rock with some melodic elements adding a bit of hooking power to what would otherwise be relatively run of the mill songs. All three are well-written and pleasant to listen to, but none of them blow down the doors. This same quality shows up in tracks like “Spiral Cities” (which I also think has the worst vocal performance on the album) and “A Different Gun.” The latter is also a bit more egregious in this regard because it is the album closer, and consequently the album does not go out with one of its better songs.
But while most of the album might be little more than really good versions of tired ideas, I would be remiss not to bring up how several tracks on the album blew me away to the point that they make the entire album better with their presense. The first of these is New Dominions, the album’s fifth song. It begins with an electronic “swosh” effect, not unlike the kind commonly heard in drum and bass music to give the impression of moving at high velocities. This song is still mainly within the indie/alternative realm, but the bass here is ear candy and the combination of the fuzzy electronic elements with these dynamic and excellently produced instrumental performances makes this song sound incredible. In fact, while I am thinking of it, Johnny Marr and Doviak might just deserve some awards for their production alone, since everything on this album pops right into place. Each song has its own intensity and strength, with no parts feeling out of place on the entire record. Even the weaker tracks are nice to listen to as a result of this.
The middle, slowburn track of the album “Walk Into the Sea” is another example of Marr utilizing different sounds to give the album variety in a way that feels like it falls right at the correct time. The piano at the beginning leading to a slow build with the guitar and drums until Marr starts in with the vocals is just amazing. The lyrics here, as with a lot of the record, are not exactly going to blow anyone away, but there serve the purpose of giving the songs a purpose and emotional pull that feels dramatically in line with the songs, and not melodramatic in a way that would have thrown off the ability to let the musical parts shine. Really, that is what “Walk Into the Sea” does best, the instruments speak so powerful here that the lyrics are just another part of the work in progress. I must say that I was fully invested the whole time, and the guitar riff played on repeat in the middle hit home.
“Bug,” the next song, is interesting for its punk rock vibe and much more whimsical tone, which comes as a bit of a surprise here but does well to contribute to the variety here. Nonetheless, it was probably my least favorite song on the album overall, mainly because at almost five minutes it feels like an overly long distraction from the intensity that dominates the rest of the album. Though, I would not say it is terrible as a result. “Actor Attractor” is very similar to “New Dominion,” having an electronic vibe. What is most remarkable here is that the song sound very much like a new wave song from the 80’s, and I would even go so far as to say that Johnny Marr starts to sound like Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode at more than one time here. It is the only moment on the album where I would say that, but it is very good nonetheless. While “My Eternal” that comes two tracks later is not in this vein, the synthpop tendancies on display were probably at their strongest of the entire record, and I found it pretty infectous actually. It was not the best song I have ever heard, but I had fun with it.
And really, that is how I would describe my overall experience with Call the Comet: I had a lot of fun with it, found it infectious in a lot of ways, though I can recognize it is not the best I have ever heard. Instead, I feel like Johnny Marr has displayed why he is considered such a great songwriter and still has relevance in today’s music industry. I will even say that I did not get that “made me want to listen to their old music instead” feeling; I actually enjoyed this album for what it does thanks to the incredible production and Johnny Marr’s excellent writing and pacing in the songs. I was never stuck in a mood or sound too long (except for maybe in the first three songs, but they were high quality enough and early enough in the experience to get away with it), and everything worked for what it was. I do not think Johnny Marr has brought back any old sound, or set the stage for artists to come, but in the current state of indie rock this is undoubtedly one of the best examples of using the sound while still having a distinct voice, as well as displaying excellent skill at constructing songs in an album experience. Call the Comets is perfect if sheer craft is all one should care about, and its one flaw for me is that it simply lacks that special edge of originality, depth of content, and emotional heft to take it to that next level.