At the beginning of 2023, Johnny Marr had all sorts of plans, but marking anniversaries hadn’t figured among them. Fresh from a succession of rapturously received shows with The Killers, Johnny had already started to gather songs for his fifth album - a successor to 2022’s acclaimed double LP Fever Dreams Pts 1-4. It was his manager who pointed out that he had now been a solo artist for ten years, a stretch of time comfortably in excess of his tenures in The Smiths, Electronic, The The, The Pretenders, Modest Mouse or The Cribs. And although, Marr’s storied life in music isn’t short of milestones – 2010 Inspiration Award at the Ivor Novellos, an Oscar nomination for his work with Hans Zimmer on Inception; and, lest we forget, an NME Godlike Genius Award in 2013 – he hadn’t stopped to consider that the passing of an entire decade might be significant.
The full measure of this extraordinarily fertile period is captured on Spirit Power: The Best Of Johnny Marr, a major new collection curated by Marr encompassing songs from his four top ten solo albums, a scattering of stand-alone singles and two incendiary new cuts, Somewhere and The Answer. Spirit Power presents a composite portrait of an artist with no less a complete ideology than the celebrated co-travellers who inspired him along the way. It’s a body of work that mirrors Marr’s unquenchable life force, his love of melody and the urge to resist what he calls the “strummy, age-appropriate transition into mid-tempo middle age.” He elaborates: “It’s a conversation I have from time to time with [Pet Shop Boys’] Chris Lowe, about how much harder it is to write songs that you want to listen to in the daytime. It’s easier to do something that’s perceived as cool if it’s a bit moody. But, for me, the mission with these records was to make songs that you could listen to on the way to school, on the way to the gym, on the way back from work – you know, in the way that you had with, say, Blondie.”
The songs that comprise Spirit Power – sequenced non-chronologically, thus giving a flavour of what you might expect if you were at one of his live shows – are an emphatic fulfilment of that pledge. Among the earliest songs included on this collection is sonorous yet yearning uplift of European Me, a song which saw Marr turn the anglepoise on the space that would over time be filled by several more songs, each explaining to their creator something about where he came from and who he had become. “Left home a mystery, leave school for poetry,” he sings on New Town Velocity, “I say goodbye to them and me, mission velocity.”
The release of Spirit Power also allows Marr to highlight non-album songs that have gone onto become firm fan favourites. The 2019 single Armatopia, whose adhesively catchy synth hooks act as a Trojan horse for a lyric which addresses the cognitive dissonance of life in the convenience-obsessed developed world as we teeter towards ecological peril. The version of Depeche Mode’s I Feel You, released for Record Store Day in 2015, reveals the degree to which he has found his metier as a vocalist of singular expressive power. The Priest is a musical adaptation of Joe Gallagher’s eponymous short story (part of an accompanying film co-directed by Marr) voiced by Maxine Peake. To listen to the nocturnal electronic textures that frame Peake’s portrayal of its homeless protagonist is to be reminded of a version of the industrial north that looms large in the legacy of artists like Clock DVA and Cabaret Voltaire – “musicians who I can easily imagine Maxine having worked with had she been that bit older.”
Spirit Power: The Best Of Johnny Marr is released on New Voodoo Records via BMG on 3rd November 2023