THE LIBERTINES The Libertines (Rough Trade)
A sad fact widely known is that theres a queasy alliance between personal tragedy and ground-breaking musical achievement. Think of the desperate unhappiness poured into masterworks such as Tonights The Night, Closer, Pink Moon, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band or The Holy Bible. So its 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 Barats 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 Dohertys 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 albums 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 songs 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 youve 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 dealers 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 albums least successful four minutes, but its 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, its one of the landmark albums of this year.