The Libertines - The Libertines (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

The Libertines

The Libertines (2004)

Rough Trade

I was reading a beautiful diatribe of a record review the other day. It was overlong and epic in scope but chock full of interesting analysis, one of those love-letter reviews written by a die hard but critical fan. I love that stuff. it's good reading. However I suppose I wasn't too shocked to discover the comments left by readers mainly complained that the reviewer talked too much about the band and not enough about individual songs. If that's not a microcosm for modern opinions on music, then I don't know what is. Blame it on the anti-celebrity attitudes of the indie scene, or the lack of a strong and respected voice in the mainstream press, or hell blame kids who forgo the album and steal all their favourite singles off the net. Regardless of cause, at the end of the day the band doesn't seem to matter when compared to that three minute MP3.

Think about it though. Take one of today's a widely respected hardcore or melodic punk bands. Take your favourite band! Replace the bassist and drummer. Do you care? Would you even know? Hell, replace the guitarists with ones of equal skill and keep the singer. Is it still the same band? Yes... and therein lies the problem. It shouldn't be that way. I couldn't name you three quarters of the band members on half the records I own. Sit back and look at the last 10 records you picked up and it's remarkably bland from that perspective. Sure, a band can ROCK, but the songs are all that seem to matter. It's because they counter this trend that I find The Libertines so interesting. Personality doesn't seem like that obvious an element until you realize for how long you've missed it. The fanatical embellishments of the overzealous British press notwithstanding, there's a very real and engaging story unfolding around the band. The music on The Libertines' sophomore full length therefore can't be divorced from the band. Yes the songs matter, but there's personality, sorrow and soul here, and to divorce the Libertines' music from the plot would be a disservice.

The album opening single shatters any illusion that the story of the Libertines is expendable. "Cornered the boy kicked out at the world / The world kicked back a lot fucking harder / Can't take me anywhere / Wouldn't take you anywhere / You can't stand me now." There it is in the first minute. Peter Doherty's very public battle with his addictions. Carl Barat trying to keep the sinking ship on course. It's a theme throughout the record and a cloud that hangs over every song. The charm of "Can't Stand Me Now" is the gentle, understated way in that this message is delivered; The guilty smiling meekly as they acknowledge their crime and shyly acknowledge that they'll do it again. The Libertines is overall a more subtle effort than the energetic Up The Bracket, with more emphasis on classic pop songwriting and folk/pub rock jams than the Clash / Jam aping garage rock of it's predecessor. Doherty and Barat's vocals are more distinct and comfortable this round but no less frenetic and messy. Thankfully bassist John Hassall and drummer Gary Powell have tightened the rhythm section so at least the foundation remains solid throughout. The band is at their emotional peak when self-analyzing their mess, "Music When The Lights Go Out" and "What's Become Of The Likely Lads" are two of the most genuinely touching tunes in recent memory. The least interesting tracks on the album are in fact those that return to the speedy 70s punk influences of their debut. "Arbeit Macht Frei" and "Narcissist" are examples. The chorus of the latter, "Wouldn't it be nice to be Dorian Grey / Just for a day," an attack on "professionally trendy" narcissism is a thin line to walk for a band whose lives are so public. They barely pull it off. The doo wop flavored "What Katie Did" and Tomblands," which is nearly a sea chanty, are fun diversions but don't feel as fully realized as they could be.

The most frustrating aspect of record is that its best songs are indeed its most ambitious, which makes the low points seem so more for lack of effort than lack of skill. Producer Mick Jones was entirely justified in hyping "The Man Who Would Be King." Sounding road weary and wise "And to the man who would be king / I will say only one thing" is followed (after a perfect, foreboding pause) by the band merrily singing "La La / La La La..." It's anticlimactic and wonderfully hopeless. Brilliantly so. A loaded bit of sarcastic advice to every band hyped as the next savior. "I lived my dream today I lived it yesterday / And I'll be living yours tomorrow / So don't look at me that way!"

"Last Post On The Bugle," "The Ha Ha Wall" and the aforementioned "What Became Of The Likely Lads" sit as kings among lesser tracks. They're testament to the heights the band can hit. They're why the lack of realization of that skill is so infuriating. It opens cyclical arguments about how good the band could be if Pete was clean and focused... but without Pete's chaotic life would the band's emotional resonance be lost? But if creativity is fostered by life experience isn't this for the best? But Pete can't go on living this way... but if... but if...

Yet there's something remarkably compelling about this house of cards, it harkens back to the chaotic, shambolic existences of bands we now call classic; back to that remarkable time when the most musically interesting bands happened to be ones with the most personal chaos. That's something we've honestly lost. Celebrity in music is now too close to celebrity in acting. It's become soulless, plastic. The pop sensation on the runway at the MTV awards has very little to differentiate themselves from the shallow teen movie star du jour. You certainly don't care about these people. However look at your great bands of old, there's chaos, there's entropy, there's a constant state of falling apart and as part of that there's personality and soul: The three week binges in which Joe Strummer outright disappeared from the Clash. Lennon and McCartney's excesses driving Harrison to quit the fab four, then threatening to replace him with Clapton. Phil Spector forcing the Ramones to keep playing at gunpoint only to have everyone but Joey up and leave. Kurt. Hell, the entire glorious two-year disaster that was the Sex Pistols.

It's in defying or succumbing to that imminent destruction that these groups captivated off record, and it's this drama that added emotional weight to their recorded work. We over-analyze because we're drawn into the story, and quite frankly there's been little actual story to modern bands like there has been to the Libertines. Sure, we'll always have our share of junkies and media whores, but that doesn't mean their recorded work is the least bit interesting. It's because The Libertines are so romantic, so in love with rock and roll, so fucking charming in the face of it all falling down around them you can't look away.

Reviewers have been chastising the band for wasting their brilliance away, for not delivering that epic, era-defining album we all know they have the potential for. However these reviewers are arguing against the plot, sour because their messiahs haven't emerged on cue, confused because a band isn't fitting the pattern we've come to expect. If the likely lads have it in them, if this damaged group of fools can deliver that record one day, it will be all the better for what they've gone through. I wouldn't want it any other way.