“Don’t ask me why I obsessively look to rock ‘n’ roll bands for some kind of model for a better society . . . I guess it’s just that I glimpsed something beautiful in a flashbulb moment once, and perhaps mistaking it for a prophecy have been seeking its fulfillment ever since.”
Lester Bangs, 1978
“This is the most complete thing I’ve ever done”, says Johnny Marr. “There are no songs I’m not sure about. And for me as a listener, it’s made up of entirely the music I like, and have liked.”
Call The Comet is his third solo album. Recorded over nine months in his new studio and HQ just outside Manchester, it’s a vivid, immersive, brilliantly evocative record, which develops the music explored on its two predecessors – 2013’s The Messenger, and Playland, released in 2014 – and adds a new emphasis on atmosphere and drama. In response to our confused, fretful times, many of its songs look to ideas of an alternative society and utopian futures, while retaining an all-important openness and sense of mystery. Most obviously, the album is also full of the pre-requisites of compelling music, which Marr understands as a matter of instinct.
“Everybody who knows about rock music knows who I am,” he says. “They know what my values are. So they don’t need my songs to be any kind of exposition. They want good riffs, and good singing, and good guitar music.”
The album was initially worked on in the slipstream of “Set The Boy Free”, the autobiography published in 2016, whose writing demanded a year-long immersion in Marr’s past. “I felt like I’d literally written all the chapters of my life and career up to that point,” he says. “It felt like, ‘I’ve told my story – what I have I got to say now?’ The past had been dealt with. Baggage had been dropped off, packed and sent away.”
“I also felt that my solo career has got its own steam, and it can stand or fall on what it is in itself. So I felt free. And I was intrigued myself about what I was going to come up with. It was, ‘What are my ideas about, looking forward?’”
The answer began to materialize in the autumn of 2016, when Marr did a series of book talks in the USA. He arrived in New York two days after Donald Trump had won the Presidency – and in his hotel, he wrote the lines that would eventually open the album, on a song titled Rise: “Now here they come/It’s the dawn of the dogs/ They hound, they howl/Never let up.”
When he then travelled to Los Angeles, he met friends who suddenly felt “there was no future.” And at that point, he began to get a sense of where the song might go: “I put it all together, and imagined two people saying, ‘Right – we’re going to build a new society.’ And once I got that, I began to tie in the whole of the record.” These threads run through songs that define “Call The Comet”’s core: Rise, New Dominions, the lead-off single The Tracers (whose lyrics contain the album’s title), and Spiral Cities – in lyrical and musical terms, evocations of what Marr calls “alternative societies”, which partly draw on the example set by his earlier work – the 2014 single Dynamo is probably the best example – but also push into completely new areas.
To a greater extent than in the recent past, their music reflects the work Marr has done with the film composer Hans Zimmer, on both Inception, and The Amazing Spider Man 2. “It’s a nice area to draw from,” says Marr. “I had a rule on the first two albums that no song could be longer than four minutes. I don’t know whether I stuck to that – I think I did pretty much. But on this record, I just wanted to follow the feeling; follow the drama. And I’d say my work with Hans has awakened that in me.” These songs lyrics, meanwhile, were influenced by the kind of the literary sources that have run through all three Marr solo albums. The Tracers, he says, is “totally HG Wells”, while Spiral Cities was inspired by the Crystal Chain Letters, “a book by different architects in the early 20th century, writing and conceptualizing the utopian city of the future.”
These influences make for heady, deeply-textured stuff, which underlines something very important: the fact that Call The Comet is a work of art and imagination – sparked by the era of Brexit and Trump, perhaps, but intended to transport people somewhere completely different. To some extent, it songs do not need explanation: like all great music, the better society they evoke is there as a matter of artistry and alchemy, and the inarticulable qualities that only music possesses.
“I was trying to reconnect with the value of being an artist, and the escape from what I see going in society,” Marr explains. “I was saying, ‘I’m not going to do something political – it’s too obvious, and also, I don’t want it dominating this record.’ This record had to be about atmosphere, and drama. I wanted to retreat into that. And also, I didn’t have an answer to what had gone on.”
In the wake of the 2016 referendum on Britain’s place in Europe, he says, “I heard my wife talking to some of our friends, and the tone of her voice reminded me of the way we were when were 15, 16 – which was ‘we’re musicians, we’re artists – fuck them.’ I had to do something more esoteric, and bohemian, and artistic. I really wanted to honour that.”
This impulse was assisted by Marr’s new working environment, where he worked on the album with the three musicians who now form the band that helps to turn his ideas into reality, not least on the live stage. “It’s literally the top floor of an old factory,” he says. “It’s very industrial, and I can see the Pennines from there. Places like that are really rare these days. So for example, I wrote Actor Attractor on a really foggy, dark Sunday evening – not unlike the night [The Smiths] recorded Hand In Glove, to be honest. I’m very pleased that I’m working in an industrial, factory space. And quite quickly in the process, I turned one of the sofas in the studio into a bed, and kind of moved in there. I thought I’d got over that kind of nonsense [laughs]. But I felt I was on to something, with that atmosphere. I would just stay up really late, and when the band clocked off, I’d wander the halls, and get lyrics.”
These experiences fed into the album’s prevailing sense of realities beyond the here and now, but there are at least two occasions when Call The Comet directly describes events in the everyday world. The first is Bug – probably the album’s most instant, infectious piece, and self-evidently a comment on the more malign aspects of life in 2018: “Everybody feels the aching/Population is sick and shaking/Can’t think straight /Minds breaking/ And the world is burning up.”
“Bug is an out-and-out pop, rock’n’roll song,” says Marr. “It’s deliberately written with catchy verses that sound quite glam rock. I very deliberately made it so it sounded like it could be sung by The Sweet, or Marc Bolan. With that, and the sound of the words, it almost sounds like a 50s rock’n’roll song. It amuses me that it’s not po-faced. It’s so pop that I could be describing a dance – like, ‘Do the bug’. It sounds like what I call a jukebox record. I’m not sitting there with an acoustic guitar on the porch, talking about the woes of the world.”
The album closes with A Different Gun, a transcendent, reflective end piece which came to its author in the wake of awful events in France in the summer of 2016. “I wrote all of it about the Bastille Day attack in Nice. Since then, I’ve thought that I want to keep that quiet, because I don’t want to appear sensationalist or draw much attention to it. I was a little self-conscious about it. But I am proud of it. When I saw what happened being reported, like everybody, I was incredibly shocked. But I got this feeling about this dichotomy that happens in life. I saw the palm trees, and what hit me very hard was the image of bodies strewn on the road in the warm, sultry night. It wasn’t in the middle of war-torn devastation; it was on that clean tarmac, where people were on holiday, celebrating. A lot of children; families. It really hit me, and that feeling stayed with me. I couldn’t shake it off. I wanted to create music that was poignant, and had an air of suspension, in a way. And the truth of it is that when I was working on the vocals, the Manchester Arena attack happened. By that time, it was summer again. And again, this idea of this horrible shutdown of humanity, in the sun, made me write those lines: ‘Every day is a different sun/Blown away with a different gun.’ At the end, the line ‘Stay and come out tonight’ is there because I can’t leave things bleak. There would be something about wrong about that. All of us need to stay out. We can’t lock ourselves away.”
Not many musicians create songs like this. And by the same token, only Johnny Marr could have made an album that combines the fundamentals of great music with such imagination and substance. Such is the singular magic of Call The Comet.
John Harris, April 2018