Rock music and drug use have always been synonymous. As Bill Hicks once said: “You know those musicians who don’t take drugs? They really suck!” Pete Doherty, erstwhile lead singer of The Libertines, appears to have taken this advice to heart and is living the “rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle” so convincingly that it appears several tabloid newspapers have already composed his obituary.
The background to the recording of this sophomore effort by the band reads more like a TV drama. Doherty spent a couple of months in jail for breaking into guitarist Carl Barat’s flat, while in the grip of a destructive crack and heroin habit. Doherty was later reconciled with Barat but the recording of The Libertines was, to put it lightly, stressful. Bouncers were employed to keep the pair from coming to blows and to prevent Doherty’s “friends” from visiting the studio. Inevitably, Doherty was sacked from the band shortly before recording was completed and now the split appears to be permanent.
Therefore, it’s to be expected that there will be a lot of attention focused on the record. The band’s debut, Up The Bracket, was a marvellously energetic slice of post-Britpop indie rock which, while not being the instant classic that many people proclaimed it to be, certainly did a blistering job of introducing The Libertines to the public.
The follow up is a big step up from the debut, which makes it all the sadder that it may well be the band’s farewell album. The lyrics are almost unbearably painful at times, with Doherty and Barat’s rocky relationship taking centre stage on the opening Can’t Stand Me Now (“you tried to blame it on the brown”). Elsewhere, there’s references to “fifteen holes in a dealer’s chest” and the closing What Became Of The Likely Lads is a heartbreakingly poignant analysis of the band’s troubles.
Musically too this is a step forward. Although some of the Jam soundalikes that featured on Up The Bracket are still there (Tomblands, Narcissist for example) the more interesting tracks are those which develop the Libertines sound. The Man Who Would Be King marries some typically personal Doherty lyrics (“I’d quite like to make it through the night / My heart beats slow fast / I don’t feel right / With a sleight of hand I might die”) to a melody that creeps inside your head and stays there for ages. What Katie Did is another highlight, a sad tale of a girl lost to drug addiction.
There are downsides though, mainly involving Doherty’s vocals. On some tracks, such as Don’t Be Shy, he slurs and mumbles his way through the song and it’s noticeable that when Barat steps up to the mic things improves considerably. Also, the quality control tends to dip sometimes, with some songs being more suited to B-sides in all honesty (The Saga, Arbeit Macht Frei).
Yet there are moments here that reach heights which will be untouched by many bands this year – the steal from the Jungle Book’s Trust In Me on Road To Ruin, the lyrics of Campaign Of Hate (“rich people dressin’ like they’re poor… white kids talkin’ like they’re black”) and the heartfelt sentiment of Music When The Lights Go Out.
It’s frustrating to think that had Doherty been clean this could have been the classic that the band have been threatening to produce. If this is to be the final Libertines product then it’s a compelling snapshot of a talented group in crisis – if Doherty can sort out his problems then the band have the potential to be one of the best in the world. As it is, maybe we should paraphrase the title of an early single to sum it all up best: What A Waste.