Sloppiness in music can create excitement and thrills. There’s a certain danger in not knowing what will happen next, a sense of democratic improvisatory capabilities — not the elite improvisations of confident jazz masters, but the freedom brought on by not knowing where you’re going or how to get there. But with sloppiness, it’s very easy to end up with too much of a good thing. Enter the new album from Pete Doherty’s project Babyshambles.
Like most successful musicians, Pete Doherty had some looks and talent, but also luck: he was in the right place at the right time, playing in a rock band at the beginning of the 2000s when suddenly rock bands became the new thing, despite being close to the oldest pop music institution around. For a short and tumultuous few years, Doherty’s partner in adulation, debauchery, and music-making was Carl Barat. The pair were quickly cast as the next Lennon and McCartney, or Strummer and Jones, and their band, the Libertines, became the English answer to New York’s the Strokes. They liked quick tempos, sweet harmonies, and dueling, distorted guitars. They certainly never minded a bummed note. It wasn’t fresh, but it appealingly recombined 40 years of rock and roll history.
Doherty’s troubles with drugs and the law are now the stuff of legend, so naturally the Libertines imploded and Doherty formed Babyshambles. The first Babyshambles album oscillated wildly between songs built around actual ideas and songs that sounded so tossed off it’s a miracle people paid money to hear them. Doherty has an ear for riffs — ragged crude things that exhibit the same sort of primal appeal as “Wild Thing” — and can sometimes combine this in interesting ways with other English fetishes, like jangle-pop. His second album, Shotter’s Nation, smoothed off his ragged side, and took a lot of his urgency with it (think late ’80s Replacements records compared to their mid-’80s output).
Doherty needs sloppiness to be interesting, but he always gets too sloppy. As a result, no one seemed to notice or mind that Babyshambles has just released a third album, Sequel to the Prequel — except for NME, a well-established champion of over-hype. It’s been six years since the last Babyshambles album, and four since Doherty’s solo acoustic album, Grace/Wastelands, which didn’t have much grace to redeem plenty of waste. Doherty’s mainly remembered now as an ex-Kate Moss groupie, or a friend of the late Amy Winehouse’s. A musician? Not so much, especially on this side of the Atlantic.
Sequel to the Prequel doesn’t give anyone reason to revise their opinions of Doherty. He leans more towards his softer, folksy side here than he did on Shotter’s Nation, and works hard to preserve the instrumental slop and shamble, while ignoring compelling melodies, energy, or a sense of purpose. Echoes of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” bleed through “Farmer’s Daughter” — one of a couple of moments where Doherty almost makes you care — and he plays a rolling, close-to-sweet number called “Fall From Grace” that people will use to point out his sensitivity. The title track might inspire bar-room line-dancing.
As always, Doherty moves between slurred approximations of sensitive crooning and rock shouts, but it’s hard to pay attention to him. And he certainly doesn’t have the charisma to sell a lyric like, “If I had to tell the truth / I would be lying / If I said that I was wrong / To be the right man / In the wrong place / It’s on the right side of the road” (from “Fall From Grace”). Other less-than-exciting lyrical gambits include a song about the zoo — “We could see penguins / Penguins are great” — and picturing himself in the hospital on a tune called “Picture Me in the Hospital”.
A recent NME headline read, “Pete Doherty felt ‘energized’ by new Babyshambles album.” Really? I guess he made it into the studio. And he had enough energy to show up an hour and a half late for an album launching performance. Just think, without this album, he probably would’ve been three hours late! He’s made sloppy boring.