If the 21st century has revealed a character of any sort so far, it would have to be utter shamelessness, a devil-take-me willingness to do the most unthinkable thing without a shred of concern. Following that path, London’s Libertines begin their first album with “Vertigo” and “Death on the Stairs,” delicious jaunts that clone the how-soon-is-now sound of the Strokes’ lone album all the way down (ha ha) to the faux-British accent. If that was the point here, the Libertines would be a pathetic footnote to a bad joke, but it turns out to have been an uncanny parlor trick, a mere hint of the quartet’s bravado — Up the Bracket goes on to range far and wide across British pop, stylistically adapting generations from the Kinks and Small Faces to the class of ’77 to Supergrass and the Wedding Present, fielding catchy tunes and mega-attitude. With the otherwise missing in action Clashman Mick Jones as producer, singer/guitarists/songwriters Pete Doherty and Carl Barat demonstrate greater skill, diversity and meta-magination than the usual to-the-cover-born fuckers who arrive overnight to become cheeky darlings of the British press. No other tracks after those first two come from the same place: in the realm of rough-edged melodic guitar rock, the album shifts gears as often as a Formula 1 racer. Emphasizing colorful vocals over the average playing benefits the band enormously. Fun stops on this course include the manic yelping in “Horrorshow,” the syncopated coo of “Time for Heroes” (which contains the priceless cultural slap of “There’s fewer more distressing sights than that of an Englishman in a baseball cap”), the wishful-thinking singalong of “Boys in the Band,” the Jam-like punch of “What a Waster,” the sleepytime verses of “The Good Old Days,” the buzz(cock)ing punk of the silly “I Get Along” (“I get along just singing my song / People tell me I’m wrong — fuck ’em!”) and a snappy skiffle throwaway tacked on as a bonus.
I Get Along adds three B-sides to the title track and a new single (the Kinks flavored “Don’t Look Back Into the Sun”). The songs run the gamut from manic punk frenzy (“Mayday”) to ’60s-inspired UK pop (“The Delaney”).
Doherty’s escalating drug use fueled internal tensions and nearly brought the band to its knees; a much publicized incident where he burglarized Barat’s apartment to feed his habit made him tabloid fodder (as did his romance with model Kate Moss). Fired and then reinstated after a short prison stretch, Doherty is simultaneously an active member and a haunting ghost on the band’s self-titled second album.
The Libertines finds a talented group at the absolute end of its tether. Producer Mick Jones adds some minor string and horn flourishes, but for the most part the material is on its own. The tremendous “Can’t Stand Me Now” opens with Barat’s stinging accusations (“An ending fitting for the start / You twist and tore our love apart”) then answered by Doherty (“No, you’ve got it the wrong way around / You shut me up and blamed it on the brown”). The entire record proceeds down this path, functioning as a set of tortured love songs, but also as an up-to-the minute report on the tumultuous friendship between the two songwriters. The closing three tracks summarize and emphasize the thematic underpinnings, as Barat sings an urgent plea to his friend (“Road to Ruin”), ruminates on success thrown away (“What Became of the Likely Lads”) and, on the hidden “France,” reflects on the memory of a lost love. A deeply moving record that is greater than the sum of its individual songs, The Libertines achieves near-tragic grandeur.
Babyshambles is Doherty’s post-Libertines project; the band’s debut album, Down in Albion, was also produced by Jones.
Dirty Pretty Things is Barat’s chapter two. Waterloo to Anywhere is a solid winner, an injection of the urgency and tension of vintage Jampunk into the urgency and tension of such contemporaries as Arctic Monkeys and Nine Black Alps, which is to say that he’s caught up to what the Libertines had four years earlier. To his credit, Barat sounds less like a veteran bitter about the time and momentum lost (well, maybe that’s not entirely true: “All the sycophants and vampires / Well I packed them off to hell”); instead, he’s an angry but righteous idealist ready to start over. In “Wondering,” he opines, “And it occurred to me, I think on Lambeth Road / There’s no more need to question life / Or cry for what I’m owed / And now it’s over so now it’s done.” As the quartet (which also includes erstwhile Libertines drummer Gary Powell, fill-in Libertines guitarist Anthony Rossomando and bassist Didz Hammond) rushes along furiously with double-time down-strumming in the Weller-esque “Gin and Milk,” he spits, “No one gives a fuck about the values I would die for” and sounds like he means it, maaan. Opening with a jolly bit of Kinksy brass, “Bang Bang You’re Dead” unloads on Doherty with equal dismay (“Well I gave you the Midas touch / Oh you turned round and scratched out my heart”) over a pounding 4/4 with some of the scratchiest guitar noise this side of Steve Albini. There are problems with the album — rhythmic obviousness, uneven songwriting and overly consistent production chief among them — but this is an exciting, invigorating disc played at the speed of sound. As the song breathlessly says, “You Fucking Love It.”