Between the two sides of the Libertines, I’ve always argued that Carl Barât was the more musically intriguing, though he certainly failed to give me much support over two dreary efforts with Dirty Pretty Things, his Libertines-lite response to his more notorious partner Pete Doherty’s Babyshambles. What I probably meant was that Barât was a slightly less irritating public persona, or perhaps not as likely to steal spoons from a dinner party to cook heroin on.
So, what are we meant to make of Carl Barât, a debut solo album released in conjunction with the artist’s autobiography and in a year that saw him tackle a number of other media opportunities as well as reuniting with the Libertines for a string of festival cash grabs? Has Barât spread himself too thin, or is he merely best when keeping busy? Perhaps it’s a bit of both.
His work with Dirty Pretty Things was always too close to home to matter much, so it’s understandable that Barât felt the need to finally fly solo with the material he’s got here. And the album is at its best when Barât lets his flair for the dramatic seep in, as on the swirling Brechtian “The Fall”, as well as on the set’s opener, “The Magus”, which sounds like what falling down a flight of stairs in an early 20th century music hall might possibly have felt like. “So Long, My Lover” is also ludicrously, gloriously dramatic, with sweeping strings and the voices of angels and ghosts entwined throughout.
But the news isn’t all good.
“I carve my name on the livers of my lovers” isn’t the worst lyric on the album, but it’s doubtful it’ll ever make a Hallmark shortlist, either. First single “Run With the Boys” is a fun little romp, though so are the Jam’s “Town Called Malice” and half of the Motown-infused tracks Mark Ronson produced from a few years ago. Dimestore psychoanalysis is a drag, but so is listening to the dreary “Ode to a Girl” and “Death Fires Burn at Night”, which at least has an interesting title. So, what say you, Carl? Are any of the lyrics about Doherty? Are all of them? “This is the song I never wrote for you,” Barât sings on “Irony of Love”, one of two tracks included in the release given to the press that aren’t part of the album proper. Doherty? Maybe. “He’s gonna get his fucking head kicked in, he’s gonna die in a fucking loony bin.” More likely.
Carl Barât is put together like a tragic soundtrack, and because the artist has a history of baring his personal issues in song, it’s hard not to assume every word is about Doherty. The duo’s fractured, drug-addled relationship has made for terrific tabloid fodder for the past decade, but even in column inches, Barât always seems to come up short. And it isn’t just in red top headlines where Barât’s been a step behind, either. Doherty was the first to strike outside of the Libertines with Babyshambles, the first to release a solo album proper (last year’s Grace/Wastelands) and at least by measurement of released material, is the more prolific songwriter.
Regardless of how much of the muck and mire Barât has really sunk himself into, he’s always come off as a semi-committed Method actor looking for an angle to sell an image. What makes his solo debut an enticing prospect is that he’s finally comfortable coming clean about his theatrical ambitions. Carl Barât, when it works, is a thrilling proposition, not because he’s suddenly a great pretender in a world of art, but because that’s what he’s always been.
And so the inevitable comparisons. Though his fragile range might imply otherwise, Doherty’s delivery is a more natural fit for stark confessionals. But while Doherty’s tired tabloid shtick has created a sense of two-dimensional drama, Barât is far more adept at grand, dramatic musical gestures. Carl Barât isn’t perfect, but by comparison to his other post-Libertines musical efforts, it’s the first real sign there’s something more to Barât than what we’ve been led to believe.