Sound — 7
Being one of the two iconic faces of The Smiths, Johnny Marr has traveled a substantially different path than his former cohort, Morrissey. As Morrissey salvaged his popularity after the death of The Smiths to proceed with a tumultuous, hate-it-or-love-it career as a solo musician, Marr showed the desire to not cling to the limelight he once had with The Smiths. Instead, Marr decided to play a much less egocentric role - from temporarily joining bands like The Pretenders, The The, The Cribs and Modest Mouse, and working as a session musician for Pet Shop Boys, Beck, Talking Heads, John Frusciante, and even the iconic film composer Hans Zimmer. But even though Marr's choice to use his time to support other musicians rather than push a music career centered on himself, the droves of people that still cherish those days back when the queen was dead were still awaiting Marr's triumphant return to making his own music, whether through an idealistic and improbable Smiths reunion or a new music endeavor spearheaded by Marr (because the quasi-supergroup Johnny Marr + The Healers wasn't triumphant, mind you).
Those fans recently got their wish, and after Marr left The Cribs, he announced that he'd finally start an actual solo career, and his 2013 debut album, "The Messenger," was exactly what Marr and his fans wanted from him: a simple yet almost messiah-esque return to the indie rock sound he pioneered thirty years ago, which was a more pleasing rehashing of The Smiths' former glory than watching Morrissey continue to spin in diva-ish circles. Whether it was due to such a late arrival to his solo musician venture or just the proper lining of the stars for his creativity, Marr is now emphatically running with his solo career. He ended up writing more songs during his tour last year, and by the time he was back home, he was ready to make his follow-up album, "Playland."
Where "The Messenger" had Marr cracking his knuckles and getting acquainted with his responsibilities as the sole composer, "Playland" shows Marr after his beginning warm-ups and ready to rock, as he immediately demonstrates with his strong guitar lead and running-paced rhythm in the opening "Back in the Box." Marr further shows his energetic penchant in the peppy "25 Hours," the call-and-response-utilizing "Playland," the skankable "Boys Get Straight," and the lively guitars of the closing "Little King" - even easier-going tracks like "This Tension," "Speak Out Reach Out," and the designated slow jam, "Candidate," contain vivacious strumming or rolling hi-hat lines that show Marr's anticipation for when things can jump back into high gear. And though the signature jangle guitar can be found in several tracks, Marr banks the strongest on his jangle sound with the whimsical britpop cut "The Trap," and he even evokes a classic rock feel in "Dynamo."
But with the difference of initiative helping differentiate "Playland" from "The Messenger," the jangly guitar lines keep the two albums close together sonically, for better or for worse. Furthermore, the acoustic-infused "Candidate" and "This Tension" echoes back to the majority amount of acoustic-infused indie rock found in "The Messenger," and the lead riff in the funky "Easy Money" rings with derivativeness from Marr's days in Modest Mouse - which, funny enough, was a derivativeness that was also found in "The Messenger."
Lyrics — 7
Marr's main theme in the lyrics of "Playland" is an analysis on the search for pleasure, and overindulgence of such, as a means to escape one's problems and unpleasant reality altogether, and Marr does an alright job balancing between charming and chiding while expressing such with juxtaposition. Aesthetically, Marr's lyrics wield more hook-driven and repetitive phrases that emulates the near-shameless catchiness of pop rock in order to match the theme of the album's more upbeat nature, while also sardonically examining how and why pleasure generated from shallow sources is more a temporary anesthetic than a substantial experience - this is well-reflected in "Playland." The hooks are further invested on in the greed-lambasting "Easy Money," where Marr is apt to adapt the hook into several different versions, and he uses this technique even better in the sociological "Speak Out Reach Out," where the kaleidoscopic hook changes its very meaning (from "what you take is what you give" to "what it takes is all there is" to "all you've got is all there is"). Although these disparaging observations of life are just as much what you'd expect from Marr as they are treading on the territory of Morrissey's brooding lyrical style, Marr does take a moment to step away from the role of life critic to get personal in "25 Hours," where Marr talks about his struggles as a youth and his choice to grow up as an aspiring musician.
Overall Impression — 7
As indicated in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Marr would be the first to tell you that "Playland" wasn't intended to significantly change things up; and in that same interview, Marr also says that he's always liked second albums (maybe he doesn't believe in the "sophomore slump"), and fortunately, that enthusiasm for second albums is felt on "Playland." With the same spirit that crafted "The Messenger" to be a re-invoking of the indie rock style he rose to prominence with decades ago, "Playland" is the continuation of that spirit, with an increase in vigor and aplomb, and more eagerness to have fun. But even if you see "Playland" being "The Messenger, Pt. II," given the circumstances, it could be a lot worse.