With their calculatedly scruffy haircuts and drainpipe-cut jeans, Razorlight is the latest in a long line of unconvincing Trojan horse projects, drab major label runoff hiding beneath the mantle of indie rock. Despite the small-band image, all the portentous failings of the arena are here: the overstated, nearly operatic emotions, the soaring choruses, the painfully earnest sense of importance. Whether crooning meaningfully over a tinkling piano or attempting a fierce rocker growl, lead singer Johnny Borrell buys into the emphatic pose of the rock star, issuing spirited edicts on issues that matter, from feeling sad to the vanity of celebrity culture. The rest of the band, a soulless cooperative between Sweden and the U.K., does their best to back him up, issuing rote, lifeless rock tracks that build appropriately to fist-pumping peaks, but it’s Borrell’s vocals that press this album past mediocrity into embarrassing territory, often lapsing into a grimly serious falsetto on clunky lines like, “You make yourself a hostage of love.”
There’s a perverse enjoyment that can be extracted from this kind of music, which is swathed in heavy production and adheres so neatly to form as to achieve a coldly commercial near-beauty. It’s like admiring the design of an attractive car or a pack of gum. Razorlight inhabits the same shtick as a band like Jet, yet rather than ripping off a specific genre, they instead reconstitute the entire idea of rock n’ roll, dealing entirely with its legend and its scraps and cobbling together 4/4 drum beats and familiar guitar chords into fluffy, rootless pablum that sounds designed to slip effortlessly into the next Guitar Hero patch.
Fittingly, attempts at social criticism are trite and uninteresting (spoiled kids are actually a subject here) and by the point of the maudlin, droopy closer “The House,” Razorlight has proven their point, an assurance of artistic bereftness that echoes earlier corporate friendly alliances with desiccated cash cows like the Who and the Rolling Stones. Slipway Fires fits perfectly into this mold, where it will be displayed prominently at your local Best Buy, perhaps, nestled cozily near U2’s latest cashed check.