Last year, Johnny Marr sought out an exit sign. The ex-Smiths guitarist and songwriter was on the promotional trail for his third album Call the Comet, and was speaking to Noisey about how he’d used its songs to an alternative reality of sorts. Like so many of us in the UK, he’d been processing the political knockback of Brexit in June 2016, and then found himself in the US the day after Trump’s election, that November. Nothing felt like it made sense. And so he started writing the music that he shot through with a quest for an alternative to ‘wow, this feels really shite and as though the world’s turned inside out.’
Rather than lose himself in despondency, he turned to a sort of utopian vision for hope. He looked to escapism, even. “I see a lot benefit in escapism,” he told writer John Ochoa at the time, “because one still has to walk around the street and get on trains and deal with other humans at airports. 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.” And so he learned to get on with it, and put together all the material for the album.
Now, though, he’s giving us a first taste of new material in 2019. Single “Armatopia,” with a video we’re premiering today, combines some of the synthiest, poppy solo work we’ve heard from Marr with a message that sees him grapple with questions of ecology. Namely, he’s exploring questions around how we can ever live fulfilled, sustainable lives. You’d be forgiven for thinking that sounds like a second-year uni student’s geography essay thesis, typed hastily around 2.18AM, but he pulls it off with his pride intact. And that’s because “Armatopia” combines Marr’s utopian fixation with crisp synths, a buzzy guitar line and visuals that recall a party at the end of the world. When life feels particularly dark, and it’s easy to wallow, a song like this says ‘fuck it – let’s dance instead.’
Director Kris Rimmer helped bring that to life. “Johnny and I wanted to work with the idea that even when the future of a person seems bleak and uncertain, they can still choose to pursue pleasure and self-indulgence,” he says. “In this case, that hedonism is embodied in our four main characters.” You watch them sweep through a tower block, while getting ready for a night out, picking up one mate after the next on their way out. They head to what I’d only describe as a disco, in a building that looks like a community centre or local library, hanging on for dear life as the whoosh of approaching austerity cuts approaches.
“We chose the derelict tower block to contrast their eccentricities and followed them on a journey to ‘the last place on earth left open,’” Rimmer continues. “There seems to be something quite significant about finding romance in the last days of existence.” When asked about the visuals, Marr tells us he “wanted the video to represent the compassionate and powerless who do what they can and try to enjoy modern life in all its weirdness”. And as you follow the friends – played by Percy Jr Cobbinah, Hannah Vincentt, Antony McCallum and Susan Reby – that sinks in. “Armatopia” looks like one of those nights you have where you realise you’ve been out for about 16 hours. A night that technically starts when you meet a friend at around 2PM before you’re joined by other mates, then a couple of others, then swigging room temperature whiskey while dancing around a living room – and, as you borrow someone’s top to wear, you clock that you’ve not actually “gone out” yet.
The song is ultimately about energy; about finding it and preserving it, and then expelling it as a coping mechanism. When Marr sings “We’re spending all our wages / going out of fashion / Who’s buying utopia?” he makes that sound less resplendent rather than preachy. As he puts it, in a statement about the song itself: “‘Armatopia’ is the odd state we find the ecology and ourselves in today. Have those in control made people feel like there’s only one thing left they can do?” He then quotes the song itself, adding: “'We’re smoking till we burn out’, so we dance and party. It’s eco-disco for 2019.” So look, we know the planet’s dying. We know some western political systems are reverting to old patterns (*waves to the rise of right-wing nationalism, with WWII barely in the rearview mirror*). But there are ways to resist, to fight back, and to take a few minutes to dance it out when you think you might break otherwise.
Catch Johnny Marr on his North American tour this spring, if you'll be in that neck of the woods:
27 Apr: Atlanta, GA – Variety Playhouse
28 Apr: Charlotte, NC – Neighborhood Theatre
29 Apr: Raleigh, NC – Lincoln Theatre
1 May: Montclair, NJ – Wellmont Theater
3 May: Providence, RI - Fete Music Hall - Ballroom
4 May: New Haven, CT – College Street Music Hall
6 May: Huntington, NY – The Paramount
7 May: South Burlington, VT - Higher Ground Ballroom
8 May: Portland, ME – Aura
10 May: London, ON – London Music Hall
11 May: Detroit, MI – Saint Andrews Hall
13 May: Chicago, IL – The Vic Theatre
14 May: Milwaukee, WI – The Pabst Theater
15 May: Kansas City, MO – Harrah's Voodoo Lounge
16 May: Denver, CO – Gothic Theatre
18 May: Las Vegas – Brooklyn Bowl
19 May: Anaheim, CA – House of Blues
20 May: San Diego, CA – House of Blues
21 May: Los Angeles, CA – John Anson Ford Amphitheatre
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