THE LIBERTINES The Libertines (Rough Trade)

A sad fact widely known is that there’s a queasy alliance between personal tragedy and ground-breaking musical achievement. Think of the desperate unhappiness poured into masterworks such as “Tonight’s The Night”, “Closer”, “Pink Moon”, “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” or “The Holy Bible”. So it’s with mixed feelings that I nominate “The Libertines” for promotion into that select group. In the two years since their debut album, “Up The Bracket”, bad things have happened to this band, centred mainly around guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Pete Doherty. The tale is too tragically entwined to recount in detail here – suffice it to say it involves crack and heroin addiction, two months in prison for burgling fellow Libertine Carl Barat’s flat whilst the band toured Japan without him, three rehab attempts and expulsion from the band until he regained control of his behaviour.

In such circumstances the resounding triumph of “The Libertines” is all the more remarkable. All the styles drums and wires can play are served here, Barat and Doherty’s elastic, ricocheting songs are driven and riven by their friendship, and despite the fact that many of them pre-date their debut album they hang heavy with premonition. At times – “Last Post On The Bugle”, for example – the words tumble over each other with such demonically pursued urgency that even the lyric sheet gives up (“??? Ask Mick Jones”, it reads, for it is the veteran punk who claims the album’s production credit).

Naturally enough, much of “The Libertines” recalls the stylistic restlessness of The Clash, but shot through with a kind of hotwired honesty, as if they never left the garage and discovered America after all. “The Man Who Would Be King”, for example, is Ennio Morricone relocated to the mean streets of London, spiked with “Forever Changes”-esque mariachi and a psychedelic nursery rhyme close. “Music When The Lights Go Out” has a gorgeous, swooning melody that teeters on the brink of music hall and will declare squatters rights in your memory, without quite disguising the song’s chilling lyrical payload, the repeated admission/confession that “I no longer hear the music”. The clattering hoedown of “Narcissist” collapses into a web of seemingly random strumming, from which emerges “The Ha Ha Wail”, about as rigidly structured a song as “The Libertines” can contain, come properly undone by Jones’ straightahead production (the album was apparently recorded live). The jerky “Campaign Of Hate” is an audacious high-wire act that scarcely tumbles, despite the rapidly accelerating tempo. If you’ve ever fostered a secret urge to hear Showaddywaddy covering Oasis’ “Fade Away”, “What Katie Did” will leave you sated. Stranger and stronger still is the collision of “Get Carter” and sea shanty that is “Tomblands” (“Fifteen holes in the dealer’s chest/Yo ho ho…Pieces of eight in the jukebox”). “The Saga” sets some harrowingly raw (self-)analysis set to a chaotic, bare-nerved punk rumble (“A problem becomes a problem/When you let down your friends/When you let down the people/When you let down yourself/And only fools, vultures and undertakers/Will have any time for you”). The dragged-out “Road To Ruin” is the album’s least successful four minutes, but it’s rapidly blown away by “What Became Of The Likely Lads”, all circling, near-predatory harmonies as the songwriters dissect their friendship (“I forgive you in a song we call The Likely Lads”). The final, untitled song (although the internet calls it “France”) is so up close and personal you can hear breathing and chairs creaking, a couple of acoustic guitars and some bittersweet memories.

“The Libertines” arrives as a tattooed wake up call for anybody who still clings on to the rapidly fading notion that the shopworn likes of Franz Ferdinand actually have anything of relevance to contribute. Bloody and brilliant, it’s one of the landmark albums of this year.