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Great pop albums don’t require you to know their history. You don’t need to know, for example, that the members of Fleetwood Mac were inhaling their imploding marriages during the making of Rumours, or that demos of Band on the Run were stolen at gunpoint because of Paul McCartney’s pot-addled decision to record in militia-ridden Lagos, Nigeria. Knowing the story behind the music can enhance your experience of a good record, but it can’t help a bad one.
You do need to know, however, the story behind the Libertines’ second and latest LP, The Libertines. It’s not a great album by any means. But for an album by a band with a singer who went to jail for burglarizing the other singer’s house and that recorded these songs with the understanding that the burglar guy might die or get reincarcerated at any moment, The Libertines is OK.
Those two singers (and songwriters), Carl Barât and Pete Doherty, became close friends in the London squat scene of the late ’90s—which means they illegally lived for free in buildings unused by anyone except weird old hippies and guys who really, really believed in the importance of pirate radio. They were young, they loved music, and they were prone to leading singalongs in subway cars. They got matching tattoos.
And from the moment journalists tripped all over themselves to knight the boys members of the “best British band since the Smiths,” everything started to go to shit. The group’s first album, last year’s Up the Bracket, was a reflection of Barât and Doherty’s yeah-baby social milieu and dedicated pop scholarship, with foppishly wry lyrics such as “Yeah, we’ll die in the class we were born/ That’s a class of our own, my love” and charming chord progressions recalling classic English postpunk outfits such as—yes—the Smiths, the Jam, and the Clash. Like Donovan’s late-’60s dispatches from Cromwell Road or X’s missives from L.A. circa the pending apocalypse, the Libertines’ debut read better as a document of the scene it sprang from than a pop album, long on epistle and short on epiphany.
None of which stood in the way of the record’s becoming a raging success at home, where music fans were still recovering from the heartbreak of Oasis, the last British band to bear the nation’s shrinking guitar-band hopes on its sloping shoulders. Of course, success meant that Doherty suddenly gained access to much larger quantities of controlled substances than he could as a squat hound, and after a year of epic partying, he stopped showing up for work. Barât and the band undertook a European tour without him; Doherty responded by robbing Barât’s apartment. He got caught and spent a month at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
The cover of The Libertines is a snapshot from the party marking Doherty’s release from prison. He and Barât, who greeted him at the gates, are showing their “Libertine” tattoos to the camera, looking a bit through-the-fire but still like friends. “Can’t Stand Me Now,” which kicks off the album, is the script for the photo. “You twist and tore our love apart,” Barât tells his mate, “Your light fingers threw the dark/…and into darkness cast us.”
Doherty demurs, suggesting that his friend “shut me up and blamed it on the brown,” Doherty’s trademark vice (though he gamely smoked crack for a Vice magazine photographer last year, suggesting that Barât might want to buy a removable-face car stereo). The two then sing about not being able to bear each other’s company even though they really, really love you, man. It’s a fairly astonishing moment—albeit one that wouldn’t make any sense if you didn’t know how the boys got to it.
And this is where the Libertines miss the point. We count on pop musicians to have horrible personal lives—and to write about them in such a way that they give voice to our own pathetic little problems, not just their own. People don’t love Dashboard Confessional, for instance, because it’s a common experience to have a meltdown after finding your cheating ex-girlfriend’s hair in your car. But everyone can relate to the awful feeling of thinking you’re over someone and then realizing you’re not. Richly enough, sometimes the trigger can even be a pop song.
Thing is, the Carl-and-Pete songs are the strongest things on The Libertines. Way too much of the record sounds slapped together—which, if we’re to believe the publicity materials, it was: Apparently, Doherty’s attendance at the recording sessions was impossible to count on from one day to the next, so the band hurried through each song in as few takes as possible. It’s not that most of the tunes are terrible; they’re just terribly half-assed. “The Man Who Would Be King,” for example, starts off as a better than average I-achieved-it-all-and-found-I-was-alone number, but it soon devolves into a Libertines jazz odyssey. And “Arbeit Macht Frei” and “Narcissist” are cute mash notes to ’77-nearly-heaven English punk (or perhaps to producer Mick Jones), but their charms are as fleeting as, say, tabloid stardom.
Still, The Libertines has some fine moments, such as the shoop-shoop-flavored “What Katie Did” and the shuffling “Don’t Be Shy,” both of which might have been truly great had they been, y’know, worked on a bit. The very best thing here is the folk-flavored “Music When the Lights Go Out,” a lush number that finds the boys looking back on a romance gone cold, pledging to remember all the “pubs and the clubs and the drugs and the tubs we shared together.” It’s almost cute—they have no idea that living so fast probably caused this love to die young. But then again, these are guys who wonder publicly, in “Can’t Stand Me Now,” “Have we enough to keep it together?/Or do we just keep on pretending (and hope our luck is never-ending)?”
As to that hope, well, Doherty is back out of the group, having failed to complete rehab. (In one bit of advanced rock-star-itis, his latest stint was at a Thai monastery where patients are forced to vomit—a lot). His band is again on tour without him, and both parties are growing adept at issuing bitchy statements. If only the Libertines had spent as much time learning to use the studio as they’ve spent learning to use the press, they might have become the great band that fabled first album suggested.
But like the smiles on the cover photo, the songs on The Libertines are muted, the joie de vivre of the group’s debut hopelessly complicated by the drugs and the pubs and the flubs they shared together. We can relate to two young men against the world. But two young men against each other—well, they’re hardly Biggie and Tupac, are they? The Libertines might not have learned much from their own history, but one thing has become clear: At this point, they’re pretty much doomed never to repeat it.CP