Johnny Borrell: Borrell 1 – review


By his white trousers, ye will have known him. The last time most casual observers will have clocked Johnny Borrell, the Razorlight frontman will have been freeze-framed at Live 8 wearing tight, optically blinding jeans and no shirt, the very image of a rock star as approved by Vogue. In 2006, Razorlight's hit, America, endowed Borrell with the bragging rights that had once seemed absurd. He'd always had the mouth. Early in Razorlight's career he declared himself a genius to NME and compared himself to Dylan. Now he had the trousers, the starlet girlfriend and the motorbikes; the moves like Jagger, mop of ringlets and the cricket fetish too.

But then the sequel to the quadruple platinum-selling Razorlight, Slipway Fires (2008), sank. A follow-up to that record, Vertical Women, sits unreleased in Mercury's cylindrical on-floor filing cabinet. The fault lines along which the Razorlight lineup had always threatened to split gave way.

Borrell has spent the past couple of years nursing his wounds, largely in France, with a motley crew of busker types. They're called Zazou, after the French zoot-suiters of the 40s, and they might be the best thing that could have possibly happened to him.

Consumers of Razorlight – it's hard to think of them as fans – are in for a shock. Borrell 1 is not the singer-songwriter album that chastened ex-rock stars normally make. Rather, Zazou are a kind of ersatz Velvet Underground playing reggae in the Basque country on piano and saxophone. Borrell holds forth on top, by turns ridiculous and unexpectedly arresting.

It's a catchy little record, and not as risible as it first appeared when the tracklisting was announced. (I remember almost weeping with mirth at 6 Music's breakfast-time take-down.) Now, even songs as absurd as Cyrano Masochiste merit 3.33 minutes of your time. The song pillories co-dependent rock star behaviour with a rheumy eye, while Zazou pelt along the Left Bank with brio.

Sure, Power to the Woman, the opener, is a mannered, cringe-making exercise that adds David Bowie to that soup of influences. But soon the peculiar lilt beds in. Track two, Joshua Amrit, is just as mannered as its predecessor, but somehow the tune unfolds your arms and allows you to let go of your nose. The production is credited to Trevor Horn, the master of 80s synthesised new pop. But what little of it there is is 70s-thin, scrawny and artisanal.

With their jet-setting talk of supermodels called Gina, the lyrics on Borrell 1 provide those erstwhile Razorlight consumers with a catch-up on Borrell's lives and loves ("My ex-girlfriend's in all the magazines," he crows). The bohemian music, meanwhile, is directed squarely at Borrell's erstwhile detractors. Borrell, it seems, is making a bid for cult troubadour status. It will be fascinating to see how this record – which sounds like it was fun to make – lines up against the forthcoming Babyshambles album (due 2 September), which almost certainly wasn't. The two men were once tight, with Pete Doherty famously saving a teenage Borrell from his heroin habit.

Borrell's braced for opprobrium anyway. "I have returned to the city/With precious stones in my pockets/And windows made of bricks," runs Wild Today. But take the J Borrell credit from songs such as Ladder to Your Bed and it's a louche love song with long legs. Disregard, if you can, all that messianic stadium flummery, and Each and Every Road trundles along winningly. While Borrell 1 has many faults – too many sax solos, insufficient sackcloth and ashes – the jauntiness with which Zazou disport themselves often makes up for it.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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