The Libertines

The Libertines

(Rough Trade; 2004)

By Amir Nezar | 9 October 2007

By now it's a foregone conclusion that the mythology surrounding The Libertines has outstripped their actual music to an extent rarely before seen in the UK rock landscape. They nearly called it quits after their debut, for cripe's sake. Pete Doherty was so addled by drug addiction, arrests, and failed attempts at rehab that he was not only (momentarily) thrown out of the band, he unintentionally made himself one of the most famous songwriters/frontmen that the UK music press ever obsessed over---by sheer virtue of his ability to fuck up.

Some found this drama to be just scrumptious---as though drug addiction and internal strife were two things that we sorely missed from rock and roll, as though somehow misery and misfortune was what really produced authentic, excellent music. It's like the silly wet-dream in that absurd Lenny Kravitz "Where Are We Going" music video, where rock stars are all fucked up (but you know, in a cool way) and suffer and are glorious...and it's a load of crock. The plain fact is that drug addiction, and the strain of co-leadman Carl Barat's friendship with Doherty, has undoubtedly kept The Libertines from greatness. Up the Bracket (2002) might've been great with some focus, but ended up a sprawling mess of Clash-adoration with some gleaming moments of potential. We all felt like these kids were almost there. If they could just get their shit together, surely their sophomore album would kill. But Doherty just couldn't. And their sophomore album doesn't kill. The Libertines merely stretches the failing promise, the hopeful "maybe" of their debut for another forty minutes. The falling-apart story behind it is interesting, even memorable; it's just a shame a number of the tunes aren't.

Some of these songs are excellent, in an unfinished but inspired way. But many of the album's tracks evidence a band that's bursting at the seams with talent, only to stumble on unfocused, scattershot song-writing. The greatest single flaw with their arrangements, as with Up the Bracket, comes from their rhythm section; in addition to being ill-produced and low in the mix, it's skilled but bereft of drive, of real gumption. It sounds adeptly executed and is often relatively intricate; but given the band's skill, both the bass- and drum-work seem like something The Libertines could pull off in their sleep.

The second problem---and the most markedly disappointing---is the absence of memorable hooks on so many of these songs. Again, The Libertines ought to be able to write great hooks as easily as The Strokes, yet somehow they waste their efforts on a lot of skilled noodling that doesn't stick in your head. Occasionally a hook or two does hit home; "Last Post on the Bugle" delivers two relatively simple but memorable hooks, and despite arriving exruciatingly late, "The Saga," positively breaks your nose with its high-energy guitar and bass hooks. But opener "Can't Stand Me Now" is about as impotent a dawdle as the Libertines have created; "Don't Be Shy" is an utter failure, attempting a hollow-ringing twee atmosphere and forgetting the hooks and any semblance of singing pitch in its silly drugged haze; "The Man Who Would Be King" is miserably disorganized as it picks up and scraps ideas; and "Narcissist"'s two step bounce is full of energy and overdriven guitars, but short on the ideas through which it ought to be channeled. Side B almost doesn't make up the difference; "Campaign of Hate," comes off lyrically silly and musically stunted, and on "Tomblands" the band is still looking around with beer goggles on for any decent hooks.

And yet, as though we needed to be teased any more, the album's final triptych of hard rocking brilliance is breathtakingly ferocious and tight. On "The Saga" Barat and Doherty exchange self-deluding quips ("I ain't got a problem/ It's you with the problem") before a tortured, drunken wail kicks the track into its shit-kicking, hook-wound thunderclap of a finish. The spy riffs of "Road to Ruin" are a bit of seedy genius, and the guitar duel between Barat and Doherty, following its final verse, neatly mimics their conflicted relationship in a way that their snidely bitter words couldn't even hope to achieve. Its cymbal-and-organ final seconds are preceded by a telling silence after their guitars whimper away. And the excellent rhythm and hooks of "What Became of the Likely Lads" almost eclipses the band's tragically self-referential words, "What became of the likely lads?/ We'll never know."

Yet, sadly, we, the listeners, will know, and it's spelled C-R-A-C-K. And three great final tunes won't stop it from happening. What's so terribly pitiable about The Libertines is that we started out believing that their eventual greatness was inevitable; now the inevitability seems to be that they will always trip at the finish line. All that remains to be seen now (and believe me, the music press will be looking), is how many falls a potentially great band can take before they won't get up again.