Album Review: Carl Barât – Carl Barât (Arcady)

The Libertine turns lothario, coating his lovelorn ballads with all kinds of sonic goo - but is it all just an act?

At the time he met [a]Pete Doherty[/a], recall, [a]Carl Barât[/a] was studying drama. This is an easily overlooked biographical detail. Unless you’ve recently been listening to Barât’s solo album – in which case it feels like the Rosetta Stone to his entire character. Somewhere, half-an-hour in, this record’s company will assure you there is a box in his mum’s attic marked ‘Carl’s Uni Stuff’, filled with a beret, a swathe of Camus paperbacks and a collection of tasteful knitted scarves.

Carl Barât: The Album is entirely in thrall to a certain very undergraduate view of sophistication. ‘Je Regrette, Je Regrette’ sums it up neatest: ‘Je regrette, je regrette, I haven’t had you yet…’ Yup, Carl can parlez Franglais with the best of them, and herein he’s dying to tell a succession of young ladies that Je-bloody-t’aime, baby… and perhaps they would voudrais un petit lie-down on his couch-ez while he undoes this fantastic knitted scarf… ‘I’ve carved my name on the livers of my lovers, he ponders on ‘Carve My Name’. ‘Love is a graveyard for nostalgia and trouble‘, he goes on. And that’s the size of it: lots of lovers loving love.

Made in the period around The Libertines officially signing on for Reading & Leeds, and timed to coincide with his new autobiography – Threepenny Memoir – Carl’s led us to believe that the democracy of bands had previously hamstrung his creativity, and now, finally, we’d get to see him take flight as Real Carl. Which is odd, because Pete was always supposed to be the flopsy-dropsy one. Carl always seemed like the Lib most likely to have secretly been into metal as a teenager. Yet here they are, seemingly locked in a competition to out-louche each other.

Who is Real Carl? A glance at the cover suggests he is a man who is auditioning for a place in Hurts. A glance at the contents suggests he is a man who has met Neil Hannon. And indeed, this proves to be true – the pair have become friendly. In fact, part of the album was made at Hannon’s Irish home. Carl’s most oompah music hall ideals have become entwined with the Divine Comedy auteur’s hallmarks, to the extent that you could imagine a track like, say, recent single ‘Run With The Boys’, being written by either.

Hannon’s clearly brought his lengthy experience of arrangement to bear on the production. Aided by another new friend, [a]Miike Snow[/a]’s Andrew Wyatt, every orchestral parp and ping is cunningly groomed and deployed in a way that is rich, detailed and rewarding. Opener ‘The Magus’ offers the best of this: a wheezy, deranged-fairground spiritual cousin to ‘Romance At Short Notice’ opener ‘Buzzards And Crows’. Likewise, ‘Shadows Fall’ trades on the same woe-eyed mystery and descending chord progression as ‘Broken Love Songs’ did on Pete’s solo record.

The trembly ballad ‘Ode To A Girl’ glimmers and glints like a treasure chest of keys, bells and subtle brass. Plenty of bells and whistles to enjoy, then, and Carl remains no slouch in the melody department. But that can’t paper over the central unease here. ‘So Long, My Lover’, sums it up neatly: sailing in on a beautifully anthemic chorus, before immediately losing its punch on account of all the ham acting in the verses.

Ultimately, the character he’s offering up as ‘Real Carl’ – this lugubrious lovepie – just doesn’t gel. More worryingly, there’s a nagging sense that he’s decided to dress it up in grandiose, emotive sentiments simply to camouflage a lack of real emotional investment. It can’t be easy to find your place in the world after your career peaked to a generational moment in your early twenties. But perhaps a little more honesty might go a long way towards resolving that.

Gavin Haynes

Click here to get your copy of Carl Barat’s ‘Carl Barat’ from Rough Trade Shops.