Stop the presses! Hold the phones! Pick your jaws up from the floor, as 2005 ends with Babyshambles making headlines for an event related to music. Given the to-ings and fr-oings of the past year, Down In Albion could either be the ultimate triumph over adversity and a two-fingered salute to every nay-saying critic in the Western world, or what’s likely to be the final chapter in a story titled “We Knew You’d Blown It”. However, appropriately for a band for whom nothing ever seems straightforward, the truth lies somewhere in between.
It isn’t like they make life easy for themselves. For a band who seem to struggle to do anything as mundane as turn up for gigs, you may think a sixteen track opus would stretch their questionable work ethic beyond breaking point, and it does. You also might think asking some guy you met in prison to perform a track (Pentonville) is an enormous folly, and it is. And as for asking your on/off/on/off/god/only/knows supermodel girlfriend to contribute backing vocals to a song, well that’s foolishness of gargantuan proportions isn’t it?
Uh, in fact, no; with a bassline which rampages around the room doing the can-can, and Moss’ coy voice asking difficult questions of the “Souped up Soho mincers” and “Pikeys with a knowledge of scripture”, La Belle Et La Bête is an early high-point. It sounds vibrant, exciting and fully finished, an accusation that can’t be levelled elsewhere.
It’s quite staggering how scrappy large portions of this album are: What Katy Did Next is a ‘will-this-do?’ Libertines G-side at best, Fuck Forever is a gallimaufry – a glorious chorus juxtaposing the titular profanity against the politeness of the punchline (“Fuck forever / If you don’t mind”), smacking painfully against a verse cobbled together from cliché – and Pipedown is a totally inarticulate bundle of rage, lurching uncomfortably from verse to chorus to verse to chorus like Bambi on ice after four cans of Special Brew.
The feeling of incompleteness almost sinks it. There’s too much that should have never seen the light of day, that is little more than a band riffing on ideas in the studio without ever taking them anywhere near consummation. But Down In Albion just about remains afloat because there are moments on it when Babyshambles make us care.
The deftness of Up The Morning shows that they can actually pull off ambitious with surprising aplomb, 32nd Of December jauntily remembers how good melody can be and 8 Dead Boys is a whirling dervish of vitriolic self awareness. Best of all is Albion, where the fog clears for long enough to allow Doherty to remember those dreams he once had, return to the doe-eyed dreamer of yore and, wrapping himself up in a cloak of naive romanticism, set sail again.
In the end, too much of Down In Albion finds the Emperor stark bollock naked, the sound of a band being indulged when they really shouldn’t. It’s a pity, because you can’t help but feel that with a stronger guiding influence it could have been a much finer record. A disappointment then, but one that sparkles often enough to ensure that in Babyshambles’ catalogue of let-downs, it’s one of the better ones.