The Libertines are one of those bands who are impossible to hate when they’re at their best, but are also a band so out of control, that all too often, they annoy you to no end with their endless parade of public screw-ups. It’s like having a bright young relative you’re really fond of, turn around and embarrass the family time and again. You want to put your arm around the kid because you love him so damn much, but at the same time, you want to chastise the little twit, punctuating each syllable with a mighty smack to the head, like an old mother: “Why! Do! You! Have! To! Be! So! Freakin’! Stupid???” The Libertines are a band so talented, yet so riddled with internal strife, that the mere thought of what these boys are capable of keeps you interested in their music, despite all the offstage drama. The thing is, though, time is running out, and will our patience start to wear thin?
If I were to go into great detail about the problems this band has endured over the past year and a half following the North American release of their very good debut album Up the Bracket, you might as well print it all up and title it Career Sabotage For Dummies. Basically, it all centers around the well-being of singer/guitarist/primary songwriter Pete Doherty, whose drug addiction has landed him in a whole heap of trouble: he was arrested for breaking into his bandmate’s home, he has gone AWOL at numerous gigs, he’s done rehab stints in London, Paris, and even Thailand, he was arrested again recently for carrying a knife through an airport… and that’s only a fraction of the tabloid fodder he’s been through. It seems we get a news story from the UK that speculates, “Is Pete in or out?” every few days.
Recorded right before Doherty’s addiction forced him to leave the band, last summer’s fantastic single “Don’t Look Back Into the Sun” showed the world just how great The Libertines could be, sounding light years beyond the sloppiness of the first album, as the band channeled the exuberant ‘70s pop punk of The Only Ones so incredibly well, and so joyously, that greatness would be merely an inevitability. This should have been a watershed moment for the band, one that would bridge the gap between the drunken, slurred, charming mess of Up the Bracket and a more fully-realized, tighter, musically rich sophomore album. Instead, things went all to hell, and the high drama began.
Somehow, Doherty pulled himself together long enough to record a second album with his mates, and while that fact is a small miracle in itself, The Libertines, while showing some subtle improvements, has the band starting once again from square one. Only this time, instead of a bright young band eager to impress listeners, the new album is the sound of a band collapsing underneath the mighty weight of drug addiction. More often than not, albums by bands riddled with drug problems rarely make for an enjoyable listening experience, but despite the problems, despite the fact that the new album is, yet again, a half-assed effort, The Libertines is nonetheless a thoroughly fascinating one to hear.
Produced once again by former Clash guitarist Mick Jones, The Libertines is decidedly less raucous than Up the Bracket, with nowhere near as much distortion on the guitars, and an overall more restrained performance by the entire band. While the catchy, upbeat single “Can’t Stand Me Now” is a quality tune, there’s nothing here that comes close to matching something like “Up the Bracket” or “Don’t Look Back Into the Sun”. There is decidedly less filler, in contrast to Up the Bracket‘s forgettable “Radio America”, “Tell the King”, and “Begging”, but you do get the odd dud, namely the goofy mess “Don’t Be Shy”, which has Doherty spouting incomprehensible, slurred lyrics, all out of tune, I might add. “Last Post on the Bugle”, the frantic “Arbeit Macht Frei”, and “Narcissist” revisit the sound of the first album, but the rhythm section of bassist John Hassall and drummer Gary Powell sounds greatly improved by a year’s worth of touring, while “Music When the Lights Go Out” is a very lovely ballad that wavers into an upbeat chorus before settling back into the verses’ mellow groove. Meanwhile, “What Katie Did” uses do wop vocals that are so ridiculously over the top, you can’t help but crack a smile, as Doherty and Barat engage in a pair of whimsical (i.e. sloppy) solos as Hassall and Powell hold down the fort.
Gone is the terrific observational wit of such songs as “What a Waster”, “Time For Heroes”, “Death on the Stairs”, and “I Get Along”, as Doherty and co-frontman Carl Barat turn the focus inwards, getting much more personal. The strained relationship between Doherty and Barat over the past year is the primary focus, as the pair have it out for over 40 minutes. “Have we enough to keep it together/ Or do we just keep on pretending/ And hope our luck is never ending?” sings Doherty on “Can’t Stand Me Now”, beginning a dialogue that seems to center on the theme of their strained friendship, and to their credit, we hang on every word.
It’s the final trifecta of “The Saga”, Road to Ruin”, and “What Became of the Likely Lads” that has the band coming closest to realizing their full potential. On “The Saga”, he spits, “When you lie to your friends/ And you lie to your people/ And you lie to yourself/ And the truth’s too harsh to comprehend/ You just pretend there isn’t a problem.” A moment later, he becomes remorseful, saying, “I am a pimp and a slave/ And in my bed you dig my bad/ I dig my grave/ And the truth’s too harsh to comprehend.” To which Doherty snidely retorts, “No, I ain’t got a problem, it’s you with the problem.” “Road to Ruin” follows, and Barat sounds forlorn as he croons, “They drive me crazy, I’m climbing the walls/ So show me the way, the way to the stall/ Cos I’m so sick, so sick of it all,” as the song concludes with the funereal strains of an organ.
The last, and best track, “What Became of the Likely Lads”, grabs your heartstrings, and refuses to let go, as Barat and Doherty seem to reconcile. Barat sings in a quavering voice, “Please don’t get me wrong/See I forgive you in a song,” and Doherty whimsically quips, “They sold the rights to all the wrongs/ And when they knew you’d give me songs/ Welcome back, I said.” The pair then go on to sing together optimistically, “Just blood runs thicker, oh, we’re as thick as thieves,” as Barat asks his pal, “If that’s important to you,” to which Doherty nods back, “It’s important to me.” If that weren’t enough, Doherty adds, “Please don’t get me wrong/ See I forgive you in a song/ We’ll call The Likely Lads.” Rarely do you hear a band wear their collective hearts on their sleeves like you do here, and the end result is both surprising and utterly charming. The bottom line is, these guys are best buds, and neither wants to see that friendship die.
The Libertines, problems and all, are still capable of charming listeners, but with Doherty still battling addiction, the future continues to look bleak for the band. Reviewing Up the Bracket a year and a half ago, I said, “You hope to death that The Libertines can just make it through the next year in one piece.” Today, as Doherty continues to get himself in and out of trouble, and as Barat continues to soldier on dutifully, fronting the band without his best friend, you just wish that Doherty can make it through the next year alive. If Doherty could only straighten out his life for good… if only. The Libertines, like its predecessor, hints at greatness, but this time, it really feels like the beginning of the end. What a waster. What a fucking waster.