• Fri, Jul 20, 2018
Reviews

With Call The Comet, Johnny Marr Offers Refuge From Political Subterfuge

9.0

album Reviews Jun 25, 03:00pm

From creating an alternative universe (poetically speaking) to subtly distancing himself from direct or indirect engagement with politics, Johnny Marr's latest album offers greater insight to Marr 2.0 - or as the writer calls it, his best solo studio effort.
This is the day to thank every ersatz rockstar-imbecile, banging out version after sh*tty version of ‘Wonderwall’ during my middle school years, in the early 2000s, in Delhi. For without such cultural horrors entering a newly liberalized, urban India, there would be little chance that I’d bump into The Smiths on the Great Internet Machine, or the mellifluous, blossoming, flowery thrum of Johnny Marr’s dextrous digits, scaling and picking his iconic, jangly Rickenbacker.
 
 
A small history lesson, if you will, before we begin to understand why Call the Comet is so utterly timely and relevant.
 
The ticket to music, at the time, was a familiar yet intrusive krrrking dial up tone, before a song could be downloaded, within a gargantuan hour or two. To pirate music under such conditions was proof enough of an uncharacteristic patience for teenagers, a yearning for a particular sound that would reflect the inner drama of adolescence (later, youth), in a crumbling society that made no promises for us, and most institutional/state elements were posed against one. Even the artists who were supposedly on your side had (have) surrendered to the whims of global capital: there was little hope, and everything arrived in India a good two decades later, when it was already old, and that meant rock music, which was suddenly an option for a teenager like me. (The early 2000s were, arguably, the worst phase for music for the pervasive Behemoth of Bollywood); this was a marvellous transposition. Given the societal neuroses, and an open mode of lament, as well as phases of collective euphoria, Bollywood was becoming big(ish) in the west, and no one made it off here in a way, in that environment, like The Smiths.

One revered  Morrissey for saying what was important (even if I wasn’t born at the time they were a band) and Marr for keeping him afloat, being the perfectly harmless antidote. They formed a symbiotic relationship like few other bands have managed to--Morrissey’s dour, bitter realism coupled with the fantastical, hopeful sounds of Marr’s colorful licks. It was an exemplary friendship, a friendship of an ideal kind, a complementary one. Today, my love for John Keats owes itself to Morrisey’s mention of the poet’s name in his song.
 
"A dreaded sunny day/
So I meet you at the cemetry gates/ 
Keats and Yeats are on your side/
A dreaded sunny day/
So I meet you at the cemetry gates/
Keats and Yeats are on your side/
While Wilde is on mine."
 

Jointly, Marr and Morrissey openly took issue with the Thatcher government, and every self absorbed turncoat that populated parliaments in the western world. Dealing head on with contentious subjects like animal rights, and alienation (the youth steeped in widespread poverty, new austerity laws), they were phenomenally brave for a time when men in music were busy wearing makeup to make a statement, not confessing anything of note save their private sorrows and joys. The Smiths were the only real rock group at the time, when there were just the glam and punk camps available for guitar oriented bands. Marr admits in a Strangeways interview, “I personally being able to get to play... and the whole idea [of punk] was not being able to know how to play [sic]”


Of late, Steven Morrissey has come under hellfire for his recent pro Brexit and pro Farage remarks, while Johnny Marr has consciously distanced himself from Morrisey’s avoid-the-news stance. Much like the eighties, today’s political universe finds a somewhat similar world stalked by the black spirit of anti-people governments: no one would be wrong to see the similarity between the May-Trump and the Thatcher-Reagan alliances. 
 
The businessmen of the music industry (which is a kind substitute for the term fascist f*ckface) subsequently, have made it a point to declare unfailingly, decade upon decade, that Rock music is dead for good. It’s well worth noting that each time the youth is in crisis as a consequence of anti-people policies, it resurfaces in a way like no other. That’s the whole point of it, isn’t it? Johnny Marr has been around a while, he’s seen governments, and bands come and go. He knows what’s up. And he knows a way around it: the pursuit of beauty, and beauty alone. This is the time to keep an eye on the news.
 
The twelve track comet trail, is full of songs that are over four minutes each--ample evidence that he’s more concerned with intricacy, complexity and design, than our attention spans. Easy flowing melodies, progressive hooks and meaty synths come to form a fine, unconventional and rich atmosphere.

‘Bug’, a throbbing, heart pumper, declares “Everybody feels the aching/ population is sick and shaking/ can’t think straight, mind’s breaking”, on the cancer of capitalism, metastasizing in British society, and consequently our hearts. ‘Bug’ oddly retains the ‘Big Sound’ of the 80s, think Whitesnake’s ‘Here I go again’.  Lyrically contentious, it deals with a pervasive anguish, and this is not just a British problem. Any liberalized, globalized economy would find a space for this wonder-work, fitting like a puzzle. Consider the state of our universities, and students in India, our options are quite similar to the youth in most places in the world. Unemployment, homelessness, inability to afford three meals, autonomous yet hard living. It’s not very different. Our youth is in that very peril (The ghost of Thatcher smiling upon the Trump-May carnage). It’s a global thing.
 
Soaringly beautiful, as it’s blooming ferociously, in a mystical oceanverse , ‘Walk Into the Sea’, is full to the brim with romanticism, the refrain “break me down” occurs till the very end of the song. It’s heavenly, mercurial, perhaps even hard to separate, mood-wise, from the oceanic blues seen in the video. The color palette there, is exactly right in its sensibility.

‘Hi Hello’ , an obvious acknowledgement to the signature trebly Smiths sound, is cool, well tempered, and serves as a gentle, familiar pitstop, exhibiting Marr’s saintly, benevolent nostalgia for the Smiths’ aesthetic, that shaped him in his formative years. The presence of ‘Dancing Barefoot’ by Patti Smith on the track though, is hard to miss.

Listen:
 
 
 
T. Rex's glam stamp is visible in 'Hey Angel', for the heaviest, most glorious spurt of joy on the album. 
 
In Call The Comet, Marr imagines an ‘alternative universe’, but he hasn't entered alien territory, by his own admission. Marr sees the entry of the comet into the stratosphere as a positive thing, a reset button. The idea is not a destructive one at all, he wants to see the earth flower again. Marr is ever so invested in complexity, well formed expression, beauty, abundance, and a full sound. This may well be a romantic response to Morrisey’s infamous lyric ‘Why pamper life’s complexity, when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat’. This is love, and ‘no time for fence sitting’ as Marr admits.
 
There’s something incredibly assuring and calming about Marr’s best solo album to date, a cool nesting place in a universe that is burning in hot fire, is what it is. Lie down in a dark room and listen to it. Feel its pleasant coolness on your face, find again, what was beautiful all along.

Top Tracks: ‘A Different Gun’, ‘Hi Hello’, ‘Hey Angel’, ‘Walk Into the Sea’, ‘Actor Attractor’
Rating: 4.6/5

 

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