Reviews and articles covering the Libertines lately tend to read more like a gossip rag or soap opera rather than as a music feature. The tales are rife with drugs, theft, drugs, prison, drugs, dismissals, and more drugs. With an album of moderate success under their belts in Up the Bracket, there seemed nowhere to go but way up, or dizzyingly down, and somehow they’ve done both. While frontman Pete Doherty found himself ever increasingly unable to kick heroin and crack habits, the band has started to gain rave reviews, partly due to the tabloid nature of British rock journalism, and partly due to an overwhelmingly good second album, simply called The Libertines.
Some of my favorite albums are those that have grown on me, the ones that I have to listen to at least a couple of times before I’m hooked. Some of the bands that have fallen into that category include Clinic, The Books, Death Cab for Cutie, The Decemberists, and even some of the later Radiohead stuff. Some took me even longer to get into which I won’t even mention for fear of embarrassment. This is all to say that I loved The Libertines from the first listen, and each time around that love has grown.
My initial thoughts, guided by my ears, told me that I was listening to a band that reminded me of the Clash. Well, no surprise there in that they happen to be produced by Mick Jones. As the songs progressed, especially as the song “The Man Who Would Be King” rolled around, I detected a hint of the Smiths. The song, lyrically and musically, is somewhat a rehashing of “This Charming Man” with hints of “William, It Was Really Nothing,” with a little bit of a punk twist of course. Just take these lines and try to picture one of the Libertines’ heroes, Morrissey, singing it:
“I lived my dream today
And I have lived it yesterday
And I’ll have lived it tomorrow
No don’t look at me that way
Well I heed the words you say…
But my heart has gone astray”
Each song on this unbelievable second album is replete with personal grief and laden with a sense of urgency. One reason is that the drama surrounding Pete Doherty was threatening to explode on a moment’s notice and so Mick Jones would record each song in only two or three takes, always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and he ended up being right. Even so, Doherty’s sloppy singing style is reminiscent of Mick’s former bandmate, God rest his soul, Joe Strummer. Guitarist and co-lead, essentially the mentor of the band, Carl Barât is a presence in the Libertines that is not unlike the presence created by Johnny Marr. While Pete gets all the press now (Barât used to), Carl keeps writing great music on the sidelines, guiding the band into stardom with catchy hooks and heavy riffs.
“Cornered the boy kicked out at the world…
The world kicked back a lot fuckin’ harder…”
And thus the plight of Doherty and thus the band, kind of, begins in “Can’t Stand Me Now.” The dramas of drugs, breakups, and fights are exposed for the world to see throughout the album. Just take a look at the cover. Barât and Doherty are caught in a pose of exposing their tattoos, but is extremely telling, or tongue in cheek, in how Doherty is showing his, as a heroin addict would be prepping his arm for the tourniquet and needle. Other songs like “Music When the Lights Go Out” discuss the rocky relationship of the band’s founders. Their manager, Alan McGee, who also discovered rowdy spatting siblings Oasis, apparently hired a bouncer for each of the two to prevent them from killing each other. Carl, in a fit of frustration with Pete, once drove his head into a sink fixture, giving himself seventy stitches and temporarily losing vision in one eye. He gave a whole new meaning to `porcelain skin.’
Back to the album, references to being `strung out’ and `climbing the walls’ pervade. One song, “The Saga,” seems to be the perfect Libertines story. The lyrics can take on both perspectives, that of Doherty and that of Barât, in the end blaming the other saying “No, no, I ain’t got a problem / It’s you with the problem.” At this point it seems Barât comes out on the winning end of that argument. The music switches back from the Jam to Blur, from the Kinks to the Smiths, and from the Clash to Supergrass. It is such a vast mixture of great influences that the Libertines manage to almost create something new out of so much old.
Take the somewhat doo-wop fifties feel of “What Katie Did.” It mixes a little bit of Buddy Holly or Eddie Cochran with the Clash’s “Rudy Can’t Fail.” The last two songs, both in title and in content are even more prophetic and indicative of the turbulent nature of the band’s two stars. “Road to Ruin” is again influenced by a fifties guitar sound but definitely Clash-ified. (And yes, that’s supposed to sound like Sean Connery saying `classified’) It’s almost a slowed down version of Mick’s spotlight stealing “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
All of the best albums are extremely personal in nature, from Joni Mitchell’s Blue to Jeff Buckley’s Grace, from Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks to Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism, and from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours to Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antarctica. Now, The Libertines is no different. “What Became of the Likely Lads” is an amazing composition, lyrically and musically that could unfortunately end up to be the band’s swan song.
“Please don’t get me wrong
See I forgive you in a song…
What became of the likely lads?
What became of the dreams we had?
Oh what became of forever?
Oh what became of forever?
Though, we’ll never know”
As of this writing, Pete Doherty has gone back for what I believe is a fourth time to give rehab a try. This time he’s getting clean at his parents’ house. Just for good measure, because he was kicked out of the band until he `reformed,’ Doherty wrote a nasty song about Barât, blaming Carl for his troubles. In a world where good things just happened, Jeff Buckley would still be alive, the Clash would have gotten back together for a reunion tour before Joe died, and Pete Doherty would see the error of his ways, kick drugs, and rejoin a band on the brink of brilliance.
The Clash- London Calling
The Jam- All Mod Cons
The Smiths- Hatful of Hollow