A little over two years ago, Johnny Borrell and a bunch of hired sidekicks called Razorlight emerged from the post-Libertines blast of gutter punk and breathless melody, and got pretty huge. Borrell’s was a watered down, sanitised version of Pete and Carl’s world of battered romance and chaotic garage rock, and it unquestionably sounded fantastic. Owing its debt more to late ’70s new-wave punk like Television and Talking Heads (and shot through with the unnerving self confidence of Liam Gallagher at his most gobby) Up All Night was like the soundtrack to a thousand stylishly wasted nights on the town. The thing though, was that after a few plays, Up All Night was a bit like that trilby-wearing scenester kid grooving on the indie-club dancefloor — ever so hip and clever, but strangely lacking in any real substance or heart. The recycled riffs, though rousing at first, soon sounded tired and samey, whilst Borrell’s lyrics read like a cartoon procession of snatched 6th form poetry — all Patti Smith shapes and half-deep, intense proclamations. It wasn’t that Up All Night was a particularly terrible record, just that there was something about the whole thing that sounded contrived, perfectly planned out, and impossible to love. Borrell clearly had a rock and roll master-plan in his back pocket, and while you have to admire the naked ambition of a man who inferred that he was a better songwriter than Bob Dylan in virtually his first NME interview, his shameless push towards stadium-sized rock glory came with an unappealing reek of desperation.
And so it is that the band’s self-titled second album sounds exactly as you expect it to. With the bombast and sense of purpose turned up to 11, Razorlight is the sort of record that wears its heart on its sleeve and paints in the universal, broad brush-strokes which are designed for mass appeal and blanket airplay. Indeed, Borrell’s lyrics are awash with hackneyed, everyman statements, clearly designed to be unspecific enough to relate to anyone and everyone from the 16-year old indie rock and roller to the Ford Mondeo driving businessman. The spiky, punk-pop of Up All Night is nowhere to be found, as Borrell has settled on a new set of reference points for his band to aspire to. Unfortunately this mostly seems to involve ripping off classic drivetime FM rock. Indeed everything from U2 at its most earnest and yearning, to the jangly stadium-pop of REM, is shamelessly plundered as Borrell goes off in search of something big, huge and chartbusting.
It should be pointed out that Borrell does kind of know his way around a tune, and really, some of the songs here aren’t that bad. In fact, in a dumb, guilty sort of way, some of these songs might even sound great, were they touched with a bit of humour or a sense of fun. Instead, bogged down by Borrell’s unrelenting earnestness and misguided conviction, they are almost all dragged towards the awful. “In The Morning”, the album’s lead single and the song that most recalls the band’s energetic debut, has a sub-Talking Heads cod-reggae swagger about it. Borrell bemoans how, “The songs on the radio sound the same”, blissfully unaware of the irony in his words and how ridiculous he sounds singing them. Things get worse with the dreaded foray into soft rock hell that is “America”. It’s the sort of song that will no doubt get described as a “spine-tingling ballad”, and evoke comparisons to the widescreen emotions of Joshua Tree–era U2, when in truth it sounds more like ’80s power ballad chumps Foreigner or Boston. Over chiming guitars, emotional “ooh oohs” and the sound of a thousand lighters flickering in the breeze, Borrell squeezes every last cliché from the already bloated soft rock format — his sights clearly aimed at transatlantic domination. Elsewhere, “Who Needs Love”, with its barroom piano, wants to be Bruce Springsteen, but instead comes across more like Billy Joel, only cheesier. By the time Borrell’s pained falsetto kicks in, it should be soulful but it just sounds laughable. Even “Kirby’s House” (which appeared on last years Warchild compilation) sounding almost brilliantly like an early ’70s Rolling Stones track, has been re-recorded, slowed down and drained of life here.
In many ways, there is not a lot wrong with Razorlight. The tunes are catchy, the lyrics could sort of be profound if you don’t listen too closely, and at 35 minutes, it can hardly be described as overlong. But while everything might well be in its right place, Razorlight is a bloodless, careerist record that has nothing to say that you haven’t heard a million times before. For a record that displays such bare commercial ambitions, it is a startlingly unimaginative and anonymous listen. Shorn of the tiny bit of bristling excitement that could be heard on the band’s first album, Borrell is revealed, not as the songwriting god he thinks he is, but as a moderately talented purveyor of bloated, trite emotions and bland “big music”.