Johnny Borrell – ‘Borrell 1’

Indie’s biggest motormouth may not be serving champagne on his solo debut, but that doesn’t mean there’s no fizz at all

There’s no greater measure of human fallibility than the people we damned because they were right. Joan Of Arc? Burned at the stake. Nelson Mandela? Imprisoned for 27 years. Martin Luther King? Killed for having the courage to speak the truth. Jesus Christ? One letter away from having the same initials as Johnny Borrell.

When it comes to suffering for your art, Galileo’s making the chips and the once-and-future Razorlight frontman is drinking champagne. For truly, who among us would not compare their better-than-average indie-rock to the works of Dickens, Welles and Borges if they thought they could get away with it? Which perjurer, given half a chance, would refuse Kirsten Dunst a seat on his “fat fucking ride”? Let him have the first guffaw at ‘Pan-European Supermodel Song (Oh! Gina)’. Any takers? Oh.

And yet, if we’re going to do the unthinkable and actually be subjective about it, ‘Borrell 1’ (or ‘I, Borrell’ as it positively begs to be called) is, at the very least, an improvement on the insipid arse-weepage that was Razorlight’s third album, ‘Slipway Fires’. One thing you certainly can’t call it – and this is a first, as far as Borrell’s recorded output goes – is careerist. Making a record that sounds like ‘Exile On Main St’ being reinterpreted by the house band from a Parisian bistro seems a fairly bold move for someone who once tried to break America by releasing a single called ‘America’.

So while your enjoyment of ‘Borrell 1’ hinges more on how you view the man than what you think of the music, Borrell himself no longer seems quite so odious. “There were some problems in your rock’n’roll career”, he acknowledges (albeit in the second person) on the much-tittered-at ‘Erotic Letter’, “They took your jokes seriously, and laughed when you were sincere”. Sincerity’s not something you’d normally associate with the world of studied nonchalance and oversexed supermodels Borrell depicts himself inhabiting, but at least ‘Joshua Amrit’ and ‘We Cannot Overthrow’ remind you that it was his way with a decent tune that made his excesses possible – even tolerable – in the first place.

The album features no drums, no bass and only minimal guitar, but enough saxophone to make you wonder if he’s recently lost a bet of some sort. Yet while its strangeness is its greatest strength, it can’t mask Borrell’s tendency towards soupy balladry (‘Ladder To Your Bed’, ‘Dahlia Rondo’) or his affected working-class heroism (“Go to Africa and build a school”, goes his privately educated sneer on the absurd ‘Cyrano Masochiste’, “After all, that’s what you people do”). Ultimately, it’s sketchy and uneven, ridiculous in as many of the wrong ways as the right, but not quite the disaster its tracklisting would suggest. Sympathy for the Borrell? Maybe not. But let’s not rush to condemn him, either.

Barry Nicolson