[20 March 2003]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Listening to The Libertines’ debut album is kind of like being at a boisterous party. Only you’re pinned in a corner by a drunken British fop who just won’t shut up, who’s shouting in your ear because of the din of loud music and other partygoers trying to make themselves heard in conversations of their own. You stand there, hopelessly stranded, nodding politely as you feel the odd spray of spit enter your ear canal, smelling the bloke’s noxious odor of stale cigarettes and hard liquor. Only, what happens after a few minutes, the guy seems to make some kind of deranged sense as he slurs on and on, rapidly changing subjects, often mid-sentence. You wind up enthralled, unable to pull yourself away from his rambling, and later that night, when you try to describe to friends just exactly what he was talking about, your own bland recollections makes so little sense that you give up, and just say, “You should have heard the guy.”
Up the Bracket is the most overbearing UK rock album to come out since Oasis’ Definitely Maybe. It’s loud. It’s abrasive. It’s foul-mouthed. It’s sloppy as hell. It’s snarky. It’s full of attitude. And the band sound completely wasted. It’s an obnoxious mess, and you have to wonder if producer Mick Jones (yes, that Mick Jones) must have been on the same chemicals as the band was on. In other words, it embodies almost every characteristic that makes rock ‘n’ roll so great. Songs speed up and slow down, gain momentum and almost completely collapse in mere seconds, but the bottom line is, this thing is great fun to listen to.
Though they might look like The Strokes, albeit a version that hails from a much poorer neighborhood, The Libertines don’t sound a bit like the New Yorkers; the only similarity being a love of pure, honest, energetic, back-to-basics rock music. The band blatantly rips off such artists as The Clash, The Jam, a little bit of Squeeze, The Kinks, The Small Faces, and even younger bands such as Blur and Supergrass, and play their music with about as much pure musicianship as the Sex Pistols. They don’t play well at all (their lives shows have been reputedly shambolic at times), but then again, you don’t really have to with this music.
Upon first listen, no one track really jumps out at you. Instead, you’re left with the memory of several distinct moments. Handclaps during a Clash-like, sing-along verse. Surreally funny lines like, “The horse is brown / Uh uh oh left something in Moscow,” “Wombles bleed truncheons and shields.” A bizarre acoustic ballad that is always on the verge of imploding, but never seems to. A chorus that consists of nothing but hilarious “Li de di”‘s. The best-executed delivery of the line, “Fuck ‘em!” we’ve heard in years. And best of all, a strange, three second long, drunken scream, that perfectly epitomizes everything that this album is about.
However, if you just hit that repeat button on your CD player, a strange thing will happen: this stupid album will start to make sense as riffs and melodies begin to stick in your head, and you wind up believing there’s a kind of demented genius beneath it all. “Vertigo” and “Death on the Stairs” start to reveal themselves as some of the best punk songs about street life since The Clash perfected the craft over 20 years ago. “Time For Heroes” is a fabulous Jam imitation that’s a combination love song and social commentary, with the stupendous verse, “There are fewer more distressing sights than that / Of an Englishman in a baseball cap / Yeah we’ll die in the class we were born / That’s a class of our own my love.” “Boys in the Band” is a charming tribute to groupies (“I’ve no homestead but through these hearts I will roam”), while both “I Get Along” and the raucous title track has the band sounding their tightest, as the songs chug confidently along. The very, very Clash-like “The Good Old Days” combines a reggae bass line with lyrics that sum up the album’s fun vibe perfectly: “There were no good old days / These are the good old days / It’s not about tenements and needles / And all the evils in their eyes.”
Normally, when it comes to comparing North American releases to the UK versions, we on the other side of the pond are often on the losing end, the most recent case being The Strokes’ Is This It album, whose US version pales in comparison to the UK print (which bears the song “NYC Cops”). Well, the US version of Up the Bracket finally gives us something to bug our British pals about. The inclusion of one song that, incredibly, did not appear on the UK version, magically transforms Up the Bracket from a good album to a near-great one.
The song, of course, is the infamous “What a Waster” (a double a-side with “I Get Along”, it was banned from UK daytime radio and TV), and its inclusion pushes the entire album over the top. Arguably the band’s best song in their repertoire, and produced by ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, it combines the sound of early Blur with the melodies and lyrical wit of Jarvis Cocker and Pulp. A look at a girl who threw her life away on hard drugs, it opens with the unforgettable salvo, “What a waster, what a fucking waster / You pissed it all up the wall / Round the corner where they chased her.” The song manages to blend pathos-evoking verses (“When she wakes up in the morning / She writes down all her dreams / Reads like the Book of Revelations / Or the Beano or the unabridged Ulysses”) with comical, foul-mouthed wordplay (“What a divvy what a fucking div / Talking like a moron, walking like a spiv”), all the while motoring along at a breakneck, Buzzcocks-style pace with an equally cool Pete Shelley melody. It’s the perfect song, and it brings Up the Bracket to a spectacular close.
It may be near-great, but it’s not perfect, as the flaccid ballad “Radio America” attests, but still, despite that moment of bad judgement, this peculiar album is a superb debut. As the album concludes with an equally strange skiffle number (?), it brings to mind that aforementioned, crazy drunken man, dancing down the street in the opposite direction from where you’re headed, loudly singing to nobody in particular, his voice echoing off the surrounding buildings. And like that inebriated fellow, you hope to death that The Libertines can just make it through the next year in one piece, so they can come along and blow you away a second time.