Michael Jackson dangled a baby over a balcony. Britney Spears shaved her head. East 17 singer Brian Harvey ate too many jacket potatoes and accidentally ran himself over. Johnny Borrell rode his motorbike to the island of Tiree in the Outer Hebrides and disappeared for four months.
The Razorlight frontman hasn’t been the same since, adding to the canon of modern pop star meltdowns in January 2008. The songs he wrote off the Scottish coast led to Razorlight’s 2008 album ‘Slipway Fires’, which all but banished the memory of 2004’s era-defining debut ‘Up All Night’ and made 2006’s 1.5 million-selling ‘Razorlight’ look like the shameless bid for stadiums it really was.
After that, Borrell seemed to disappear up his own backside, transforming himself from a ripped, white-jeaned motormouth into a moustachioed bluesman hell-bent on rejecting the fame he once craved. He recruited rag-tag roots band Zazou and made a brass-filled solo debut, 2013’s ‘Borrell 1’, featuring songs with titles like ‘Erotic Letter’ and ‘Pan-European Supermodel Song (Oh! Gina)’.
The blueprint is largely the same for ‘Atlantic Culture’ – ‘We Cannot Overthrow’ from ‘Borrell 1’ appears re-recorded and all four tracks from 2014 EP ‘The Artificial Night’ feature, while ‘60 Thompson’, a song about ex-girlfriend Kirsten Dunst from ‘Slipway Fires’, is given a bluesy makeover. Crucially though, it’s among the most striking moments here, hammering home the contrast between Borrell old and new by morphing an arena-ballad about a Hollywood superstar into a tightly played passage of plinking jazz more credible than any of the 35-year-old’s previous solo material.
The waltzing ‘Swim Like A Star’ (key line: “You say I’m just a normal guy/I’m only an average clown”) and the slow-build skank of ‘The Ego Song’ (classic Borrell, that title) exude similar authenticity. ‘Black God’ and ‘Swim Like A Star’ are springier, featuring pinpoint-delivery choruses that stand a good chance of lodging in your head whatever your preconceptions.
The jarring rhythm of ‘Zazou’s Theme’ and closing Bob Dylan cover ‘Man Gave Names To All The Animals’ are more lamentable, but it sounds like Zazou are having too much fun to notice. In fact, Borrell sounds more comfortable than he has in years – maybe it’s time to cut him some slack.
Johnny Borrell & Zazou – ‘The Atlantic Culture’ Review
He was a self-styled rock god set on world domination, but the former Razorlight frontman's latter-day weird period is certainly no fad.