If ever a band set out to realize its chosen moniker, this would be it. The Libertines conduct their lives, run their band and write their music without so much as a fleeting thought for convention or morality (or even their own health). Having formed just under three years ago, they’ve already experienced enough self-imposed turmoil—legal and otherwise—to warrant a grisly two-part episode of Behind the Music. Singer/guitarist Pete Doherty’s well-publicized struggles with drug addiction (heroin and crack) occasioned his sporadic absences from the group’s lineup while he attempted to clean up. But his drug habit reached a new low when he burglarized the home of bandmate and Libertines co-founder Carlos Barat in July 2003, resulting in his arrest and a brief jail sentence.
You may be thinking to yourself: drug problems are terrible, sure, but not unheard of in the music world. Well, The Libertines don’t stop there. Carlos and Pete are notorious for their constant Gallagher-esque falling-outs and make-ups which often result in—but are in no way limited to—black eyes, knees to heads, unsightly bruises and busted guitars (cue ironic spinning of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”). Carlos even had a metal plate implanted behind his eye after a particularly gruesome accident in the bathroom following a night of drunken debauchery. Suffice to say, The Libertines seem bent on utter self-annihilation.
But what of their surging popularity as a band? Dubbed iconoclastic rock heroes in the mold of The Sex Pistols (like Johnny Rotten and company, their music has been banned by the BBC), The Libertines received an award from British music rag NME and have enjoyed strong record sales, especially abroad. Unfortunately for Doherty and Barat, their insane antics threaten to overshadow the band’s moderate success. I’d say that about brings us up to date.
For the band’s recently released eponymous sophomore effort, Doherty recorded most of his parts over the period of just a few days, mainly due to the producer’s fear that he’d pull an Axl Rose in regard to attending the sessions. This expedience gives the tracks a raw, unhinged and occasionally manic quality—sloppy, unabashed rock ’n’ roll. The Libertines’ music has always fallen somewhere between The Clash and The Smiths, but with this album they seem to be uncovering their own unique sound and artistic voice. Doherty’s vocals contrast sharply with the poppy and almost Tom Verlaine-ish guitar parts, creating a unique mix that pushes them clearer of the shadows of their British predecessors and American counterparts (OK, The Strokes).
Given the band’s state at the time of recording, the raw nature of the songs and lyrics assumes a deeper significance. Doherty and Barat appear to revel in their excesses and turmoil one moment, only to bemoan them as torture the next. In the strongest and poppiest cut on the album, “Can’t Stand Me Now,” Barat and Doherty trade off on vocals, bickering back and forth about their relationship in a quirky, effective representation of real life.
One of the most intimate moments on the album comes in the form of a “secret” track after “What Became of the Likely Lads.” Consisting solely of guitar and voice, it’s recorded in such a raggedy-glorious fashion that you can actually hear Doherty’s breath hissing like a respirator behind the solemn guitar. He sings of destructive drugs and love lost: “Choking and smoking to your angelic soul / Choking and smoking myself into a hole / Where the only way out is to sleep and to dream / And to cry out your name.”
Listening to the album, you sense definite substance beneath The Libertines’ grimy, brash, repellent exterior; these lads’ sentiments more closely resemble the forgivable petulance of unruly children than the virulence of hardened criminals. All that said, while gritty rock ’n’ roll depends somewhat on the vaunted freedom implied in The Libertines’ band name, it’s also hard to strum a power chord when you’re battling a nasty case of rigor mortis.