Johnny Marr Is On Another Planet and Wants Us to Join Him
On his new album 'Call the Comet,' the ex-Smiths guitarist finds defiance and offers solace in escapism as the world crumbles before our eyes.
The making of Call the Comet, the new album from guitar legend and The Smiths founding member Johnny Marr, is a fitting allegory for today’s inescapable echo chamber of news cycles and talking heads. For nine months of 2017, Marr and his band locked themselves in his Crazy Face Studios, an old, factory-like building on the outskirts of Marr’s native Manchester, England, and projected news feeds from Al Jazeera, Fox, BBC, and other global media outlets onto the studio wall.
Between rehearsals and writing sessions, Marr would roam around the massive building, alone with his thoughts and in search of the songs that would eventually make up his new album. He spent hours tinkering away with his guitars, pedals, and effects, the din of the projected feeds echoing across the empty structure in the background.
“I used the making of [Call the Comet] as the very driving need to escape—there’s no getting around that,” Marr tells Noisey by phone from his home in Manchester. “But I didn’t actually realize it until about four or five songs in. And when I did, it gave me the impetus to carry on in that same direction. I was aware that I needed to escape.”
Call the Comet, Marr's third solo album, sees him departing from his previous, more introspective themes of British identity and consumerism in favor of exploring headier topics like escapism, current-day politics, and global society. Sonically, he remains loyal to his golden indie rock sound—polished studio wizardry, glossy guitars, sparkling riffs, and signature guitar jangles and arpeggios—at the heart of his last two solo albums, 2013's The Messenger and 2014's Playland, alongside Boomslang, his 2003 Johnny Marr + The Healers project. But where those releases found Marr’s presence as a frontman taking a backseat to his godlike guitar talents, Call the Comet underscores Marr's newfound creative approach: thematically aggressive and politically visceral.
Through a loose narrative set in a not-too-distant future, Call the Comet follows two inhabitants of an alternative society as they search for a new idealism in the aftermath of the album’s titular comet. Though the record at times flirts with space opera-like motifs—“The Tracers” tells of an evolved version of humans who’ve come to rescue Earthlings, for example— Call the Comet is less a fantasyland or sci-fi backdrop than Marr’s own magic realism—the happy place he's created inside his head.
“Making the record was an emotional necessity for me,” Marr says. “As precious as that may sound, it absolutely was. But this time out, I definitely needed to make tracks in the same way that I needed to make tracks when I was a frustrated and slightly alienated, switched-on youngster.”
“I used the making of [Call the Comet] as the very driving need to escape—there’s no getting around that...I was aware that I needed to escape.”
The first inklings of Call the Comet bubbled up in June 2016 following the “huge disappointment and disillusionment” Marr says he felt in the wake of Brexit. Then, later that year, on a promotion run for his autobiography Set the Boy Free, Marr found himself in NYC the day after the election of Donald Trump, amounting to a one-two punch to the proverbial gut that re-lit a fire beneath the 54-year-old musician.
“When I met with my friends in America, I did say to a couple of them, ‘I get it, you feel heartbroken,’ because I’d been through it with my friends with Brexit," Marr says. "That heartbreak was not just because of the shock and worry about the new President, [but] because of the disappointment that you feel in a lot of your countrymen who put that figure there.”
Months later, Marr found himself in the bowels of his factory studio, still shaken and grasping for inspiration.
“Something in me reminded me of the way I used to react when I was a teenager, and art, in my case being a songwriter, helped me to shut out a lot of hypocrisy and bullshit in society that I had no answer for, and that I felt I was seeing very, very clearly," Marr says, recalling his youth immersed in records by Patti Smith and The Only Ones. Years later, he would provide a similar outlet for young Brits during his politically-minded Smiths days, when he and his bandmates stood against 1980s Thatcherism in the UK.
Though Marr has kept socially vocal throughout the decades, publicly chiding conservative UK Prime Minister David Cameron for his Smiths fandom, and tackling homelessness on 2017's “The Priest,” he's also been first to admit that talking about politics in music is a “buzzkill." But maybe it doesn't have to be.
“I was reminded that I have a thing that I do that is very personal,” he says. “And the fact that I could share that with people who follow me and have some kind of trust in me or just give me their ear, even if it’s just for entertainment, was the best I could do.”
As Marr embarked on the new album, the world continued to fall to shit: Trump’s first year in office, natural disasters like Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, mass shootings, the #MeToo movement, racist immigration and border policies, travel bans. He addresses some of these major issues on Call the Comet: On “Bug,” the album’s most biting piece of social commentary, Marr likens the spread of right-wing ideology to a virus—“Don’t catch it / Spreading all around / Out-breaking / Infecting our lives…Everybody feels the aching / Population is sick and shaking.”
But rather than hop on a worn soapbox and address Brexit or Trump directly, Marr tackled the existential upheaval by creating an imaginary society where none of this ever happened—a place where he, and his listeners, could detach from the daily cataclysm of reality to explore the spiritual strife within. As Marr sees it, escapism is defiance.
“I see a lot benefit in escapism….because one still has to walk around the street and get on trains and deal with other humans at airports,” Marr says. “I think to not participate in the values of the bullying, prickish, boorish, selfish culture that we’re supposed to participate in, but still go about your business and interacting with other people, almost feels like being part of the resistance.”
“Making the record was an emotional necessity for me. But this time out, I definitely needed to make tracks in the same way that I needed to make tracks when I was a frustrated and slightly alienated, switched-on youngster.”
Even now, with Call the Comet standing as his most politically forward project to date, Marr sees little efficacy in belaboring the obvious.
“I kind of think that everything that is at the sharper end of the culture has some implicit knowing about politics in it,” he says. “I don’t think that art has to say something. I think it just has to be good, and it is implied that people at the sharper end are all on the same side, unless they say otherwise. The world being what it is, people who have reactionary tendencies just can’t stop themselves from mouthing off.”
Of course, this evokes a certain Morrissey-sized elephant in the room. Though the Smiths co-founders were once politically, creatively, and ideologically aligned, Morrissey and Marr now stand at opposite ends, with the former’s ongoing lapse—from defending Harvey Weinstein to praising Brexit, among a laundry list of cultural infractions—tainting his long-standing messianic appeal. Still, Marr opts to remain a silent spectator on the sidelines as Morrissey’s fall from grace continues to publicly unfurl.
“I’ve always been my own entity in terms of my principles, and never really been defined by being opposite to anyone,” Marr says. “That my ex-songwriting partner from 30 years ago is now very publicly taking a different position—I mean, so what? Lots of people have got a different position to me. I disagree with that position the same as I disagree with anyone with those views. In a way, the easy answer is, ‘What the fuck does everyone think I’m gonna think about it?’”
That steadfast truth beneath the daily noise is perhaps just the point of Call the Comet. It's a way out, a glimpse of utopia from within, where, as Marr sings on "Spiral Cities," “the days are glowing up,” and its inhabitants are moving in procession “with our eyes set to the glow of love.”
“I don’t think that art has to say something. I think it just has to be good, and it is implied that people at the sharper end are all on the same side, unless they say otherwise. The world being what it is, people who have reactionary tendencies just can’t stop themselves from mouthing off.”
It may not be the ultimate resolution we seek, but Marr is no one's savior; after all, it's not on him, or anyone, to save us from ourselves. He’s already done his part.
“All I know is that I’m glad I have a life that involves art and ideas performance," Marr says. "I’ll work with that as best as I can, and hopefully it will be of some use somehow. If not, I’m fine with the job of guitar player and performer.”
Call the Comet by Johnny Marr is out now on New Voodoo Records.