Ah the Dalston set, where are they now? That slightly incestuous clique of musicians who emerged from the Hackney district at the start of 2002 seems a long time ago now. Dominic Masters has sunk back into obscurity after one appalling album with The Others, Carl Barât is still going strong, if rather ordinarily, with Dirty Pretty Things while Pete Doherty can’t seem to decide whether he wants to be remembered as a genius songwriter or a tabloid joke figure.
Of all the ‘Dalston’ bands, it’s Razorlight who seem the most destined to enjoy long-term success. Their debut album, Up All Night, was an unqualified triumph, mixing the frantic chaos of the Libertines with some classic songwriting touches that resulted in endlessly listenable tracks such as Golden Touch or Rip It Up. Borrell’s lyrics too, while sometimes straying into pretentiousness, were as articulate and memorable as one of his many press quotes.
All of which makes the band’s follow up one of the most eagerly awaited records of the year, and sadly it’s a crushing disappointment. The signs didn’t look good when the title was unveiled as, erm, Razorlight, and the songs inside show about as much imagination. Gone are the taut, spiky anthems that worked so well on Up All Night, replaced by a bloated new direction aimed squarely at the US market.
Things do get off to a good start though with In The Morning, which is touched by Borrell’s undoubted gift for a memorable chorus and a valedictory, celebratory atmosphere about it. Yet moments like this are few and far between (with the exception of the glorious Kirkby’s House, already familiar to Razorlight fans as a staple of their live set and a track on the Help: A Day In The Life compilation).
Hold On starts off horrifically like long forgotten ’80s stompers JoBoxers before laying down a faux-Motown beat which really doesn’t work at all. Who Needs Love has some shamelessly romantic lyrics set to a R&B soul melody that has ‘prime-time Radio 2’ written all over, while Back To The Start ignores the travesty that was the last Charlatans album and persists in the myth that white indie bands can actually do reggae.
Things do improve with America however, which is Razorlight’s big stadium ballad, but imbued with a sense of intimacy. The lyrics are facile at best though – talk about there being nothing on the radio which had already been well covered by In The Morning. Indeed, Kirkby’s House seems, lyrically at least, a virtual remake of In The Morning.
It’s those lyrics that make much of this second album such a disappointment. While Up All Night told tales of Bukowski-loving girls and stories of scuzzy downtown London life, it’s all woman trouble and touring woes here. The final track, Los Angeles Waltz, even sees Borrell falling back on the old ‘it’s a hard life being a successful rock star’ woes with lines like “it’s been a fucked up year”.
Indeed, if there’s a hero on this album though, it’s not Borrell but guitarist Bjorn Agren. Each track here features some wonderful guitar work, whether it be the delicate riffs in the introduction to America or the blustering power chords of Can’t Stop This Feeling I’ve Got. In the same way that U2‘s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb was The Edge’s album, Razorlight’s finest work comes from the Swedish guitarist.
It’s not so much that much of Razorlight is bad exactly, it’s just very ordinary. In deciding to ditch their more spiky side and go all out for commercial glory, the band have lost sight of what made them special in the first place. Songs like Pop Song 2006 and the wannabe epic Can’t Stop This Feeling I’ve Got just sound bland and anonymous – not an accusation that could have been thrown at the Razorlight of old. While nobody’s expecting a remake of Up All Night, at times this sounds like a much older, far less exciting band than the one who thrilled all and sundry with those early singles.
Since Up All Night was released, both Arctic Monkeys and Borrell’s nemesis The Kooks have raised the bar for indie guitar bands, which means that Razorlight really had to come back with an outstanding second album. Sadly, they haven’t and it remains to be seen whether Borrell can rediscover his much vaunted golden touch.