Of course, context in music can be everything. Would the triumphant bluster of Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back in Anger” still sound the same in these tense, post millennium times as it did in the pomp of Britpop and Cool Britannia? Would the gobbing, swearing vitriol of The Sex Pistols have made quite as much thrilling sense were it not set against the moribund musical landscape of 1977? In the same way, Dirty Pretty Things come with so much baggage and so much naked history that it becomes impossible to divorce their debut album from the not-too-distant past. Which is something of a shame really, because Waterloo to Anywhere is a remarkably fresh sounding record, frequently bristling with energy and fire.
As for the obligatory history bit, we’ll keep it short. Two members of Dirty Pretty Things, Gary Powell and Carl Barat used to be in a band called The Libertines with Peter Doherty. They were rather good, and doing rather well until Doherty’s drug use got way out of control. He got banged up in prison for burgling Barat’s flat, and after a brief reconciliation was kicked out of the band until he got himself better (he never did). Which is how the story gets told anyway…
But for people all over Britain, The Libertines mattered. Probably more so than any band of their generation so far—possibly more than any British rock band since The Smiths. Their rackety street urchin charm and misty-eyed, romantic vision of England was, for the kids who let it be, utterly captivating and impossible not to fall for. Oh, and in songs like “Time for Heroes” and “Don’t Look Back into the Sun” they wrote some of the most celebrated and defining tunes of the last decade. For this listener at least, even just for a little while, when they were all facing the same way, The Libertines were a band that had it all in their hands. Since it inevitably all fell apart, Doherty has dated supermodel Kate Moss and become a permanent tabloid fixture, reviled and celebrated as the nation’s most famous law-breaking junkie and last romantic. Barat on the other hand has kept a low profile and something of a dignified silence, content to bide his time and keep his distance from the tragic-comic shambles that is Doherty’s life.
From the moment the wired spaghetti western snarl of “Deadwood” bursts from the traps, it’s clear that the supposed ‘sensible’ Libertine has taken full advantage of the last few years worth of coiled up anger and frustration. Despite the official line, when Barat sings, “You got the world, boy/ This all you make it?/ You had the choice, lad/ You wouldn’t take it” there is little doubt that he’s addressing his errant ex-bandmate. Indeed the ghost of Doherty, or more accurately the ghost of The Libertines is exorcised throughout Waterloo to Anywhere. The seedy underworld of hangers on, druggies and vultures that stalked the band in their dying days is brilliantly ripped apart with tuneful venom on “Doctors and Dealers”, with its telling reference to “crackpot quacks with cracked up egos”. The almost weary “fuck you” of “Blood Thirsty Bastards” feels like closure of a private hell, whilst the clattering Buzzcocks-style punk of “Gin and Milk” finds Barat bemoaning that, “No-one gives a fuck about the values I would die for.” Clearly dragging the Pete-less Libertines around the globe on their final contractual obligations tour must have taken a fair toll on the singer.
Elsewhere, “The Gentry Cove” is the type of smugglers sea shanty that the Libertines always promised but never quite managed to pull off, and in “Bang, Bang You’re Dead”, Dirty Pretty Things already have their own uber-anthem in waiting. It’s a taut but sparkling stomp, the dual guitars bouncing around Barat’s melody and killer pay off, “Bang bang you’re dead/ Always so easily led”, surely a final word on the severed Doherty/Barat alliance. It’s certainly a million miles away from the stumbling circus of Doherty’s Babyshambles, and is unquestionably the albums high point.
It’s to Barat’s often underrated skill as a songwriter, that even without all this dirty washing being aired, these songs would still stand up as a master-class in how to carry off effortless punk-pop. Indeed, the first half of Waterloo to Anywhere is very nearly flawless. A thrilling tour taking in all of the Libertines’ finest moments, the songs are ripped through with precision, vitriol and a youthful hunger befitting of a much fresher faced band. Tighter and sounding more together than the Libertines ever did, you get the impression that having seen it all spectacularly fuck up once, an older and wiser Carl Barat means business this time around. And if the ramshackle allure and wasted romance of his former band is absent, then you feel it’s only because that’s all part of Barat’s grand plan for Dirty Pretty Things.
Where Waterloo to Anywhere falls short is on the old-fashioned side two. Apart from the sublime “Wondering” with its top-down, sun-kissed chorus, too many songs announce their arrival and lose your interest within about a minute. “The Enemy” and “If You Love a Woman”, in particular, scratch around nicely—solid enough songs that never really hint at much of a tune. And while Barat can hardly be criticised for tightening up and playing things straight, these uninspiring moments on Waterloo to Anywhere lack something to pull them out of the ordinary. It’s that spark, which even at his most incoherent and faltering, Pete Doherty has always had in abundance. Of course, it’s a spark that might never again light up the stage as much as it now does the gossip columns, but just as Doherty misses his former friends influence, there are times when something unpredictable is missing from the effortless near-perfection of large chunks of Waterloo to Anywhere.
This isn’t to say it’s not an outstanding rock and roll album, because it mostly is. In all its unfussy delights, it’s very nearly the great record that Babyshambles couldn’t quite get together. Maybe judged in the context of what has gone before, it can’t ever hope to have the same impact as Up the Bracket, but that shouldn’t deny the visceral thrills of the first six songs here especially. Where Carl Barat goes next now that all his frustration has been let out is to be seen, but on this showing, you feel he has a damn sight more chance of getting there that the still-wayward Doherty.
// Notes from the Road
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