The rapid evolution of the grubby foursome the Libertines mirrors that of its namesake. Beginning inauspiciously as little more than garage copycats and subsequently championed as Britain's most creative and promising young guitar group, the band is currently settling into its present incarnation as maddening underachievers -- more renowned for public squabbles than songs.
Not since the days when the Gallagher brothers bedded nearly every pop starlet in England and spit on American awards show attendees has a rock band been such ripe tabloid fodder. Most of the coverage involves guitarist/songwriter Pete Doherty's drug-addled escapades -- from his frequent trips to exotic rehab programs to his no-shows for gigs. Ironically, most of the juiciest news items have come since his hiatus/dismissal from the group he co-founded with Carl Barat. The Libertines' international profile has increased as Doherty further descended into chemical dependency. Barat and the rest of the Libertines, concerned for their bandmate's health and perhaps for their own ability to meet performing obligations with Doherty aboard, have said that he will only be welcomed back once he has cleaned up to their satisfaction. (On the tour, Doherty is replaced by Anthony Rossamondo)
With all the documented mayhem, it might seem impossible that the Libertines could come up with a coherent follow-up to their highly praised debut, 2002's Up the Bracket. And that would be mostly correct. However, the Libertines' ramshackle, convoluted approach brings a unique sort of brilliance to the new, self-titled album. Unlike the typical sophomore album, which refines the vision or spruces up some of the rougher edges of its predecessor, The Libertines takes a rather unconventional view of progress, almost entirely deconstructing the debut. It's as if the band is working backward toward its first album. Although Mick Jones is given credit as producer, just as he was on Up the Bracket, the album sounds like it was mostly recorded during his cigarette and coffee breaks -- as if Barat and Doherty turned on the recording equipment themselves and mixed the results. Essentially, The Libertines sounds like a bunch of demos.
Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine an album more perfectly capturing the Libertines at present -- and therein lies its genius. The drugs, the bile, the "several large gins": It's all here. Up the Bracket, for all its Clash-mongering cool, rarely hinted at a band with more to offer than a British take on the "new garage" revival. On The Libertines, the band dares to commit its personality to tape, even while it must necessarily shirk radio-friendly hooks to convey the narrative properly. Even Eminem himself would likely marvel at the self-mythologizing first single, "Can't Stand Me Now," on which Barat and Doherty trade barbs about the impending breakup of the band. The frustration is even more palpable on Doherty's ode to his personal impasse, "The Ha Ha Wall," as he chastises his bandmate for not accepting his best efforts to change ("It's been a long war now, we're tired and dirty but still not dirty enough for you"). But the soap opera closes with a surprisingly uplifting lament as Barat offers Doherty forgiveness, even though he remains baffled by the destructive behavior that stopped the Libertines short of their potential: "Oh what became of forever? We'll never know!"
In falling short of ambitions and living to tell the tale, the Libertines have, in a certain sense, achieved their potential. They have cemented their identity as the perpetual underdogs, the certain fuck-ups. The evolution into the degenerate outsiders that their name implies is now complete.
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