As The Libertines’ second album turns 13, revisit our original review
In the summer of 2004, as the greatest British renaissance of music for over a decade gathers pace, two upstart bands have reached the attention of the broader public. There’s the slick tunefulness of Franz Ferdinand and the intoxicating grimy anthems of The Libertines, stripy shirts versus military jackets, ‘Take Me Out’ versus ‘Take Pete Out Of The Band’. It was The Libertines who first rode to the rescue of British music in 2002, but it’s Franz Ferdinand who’ve sold the most records.
While Franz Ferdinand have the sharp dress sense, precise tunes and broadsheet endorsement of an early Beatles, Libertines have all the passion and unpredictability of young Rolling Stones. And, like The Beatles and Stonesin the ’60s, it is the very fact that these bands exist at the same time that is so exciting. When push comes to shove, these are bands which seize the imagination and change lives.
It’s two years since ‘Up The Bracket’ launched Peter, Carl, John and Gary, spewing crazy tales of Albion and Arcadia to a bemused and baffled public. NME put them on the cover before their first single had even been released (and The Libertines have returned the compliment, using one of our shots on the sleeve of ‘The Libertines). Excuse us for gloating but it’s important to note how many other people didn’t get it. Some critics worried that it might be a scam, rather than recognising a band who were the rough and ready offspring of The Smiths (the lyrical genius), The Clash (the anthemic punk) and the Small Faces (the chaotic charm).
Of course, two years on, the ‘scam’ accusation is totally irrelevant. From split to burglary, prison to reconciliation, facial injuries to estrangement, even the most ardent doubters could see they were for real. The only problem was the danger the drama would overshadow the music, but, for a band like the [The Libertines, the two are bound together inextricably.
With more dirty linen than the Polyphonic Spree after Glastonbury, you’d expect the The Libertines to do the British thing and bury their feelings. But ‘The Libertines’ has an honesty more in common with the confrontational/confessional traits of hip-hop than rock. Even when there are obvious porkies, you get the feeling they’re told more for Pete’n’ Carl’s own sake than ours. Soundwise, former The Libertines man Mick Jones has produced a more polished and satisfying album. There’s a spontaneity to ‘The Libertines’ other bands spend years trying to craft. Comments, mumbles, ad hoc exclamations and the occasional bum note are all left on tape, from the mumbled “I’m so so alone” on ‘Last Post On The Bugle’ to the yells of “Mugs!” and “Oh my god!” on‘Campaign Of Hate’.
So what you have here is the most agonisingly voyeuristic listening experience in rock, ever. It’s also some of the most exhilarating and brilliant rock’n’roll of the past 20 years, destined to be glued to discerning CD-players everywhere from council estates to country estates.
It starts with a premature ending: the fading seconds of a previous take. It’s a deliciously appropriate metaphor for a band who’ve packed in more false endings than a bad horror movie. Then the nagging morse code riff of ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ introduces their finest single to date, Carl intoning: “An ending fitting for a start/You twist and tore our love apart”. As exciting a start as ‘London Calling’ or ‘The Queen Is Dead’, it immediately puts them on the same level as their heroes. For a band that’s busy breaking apart, they’re vocally closer on this album than ever before. Phrases are tossed between the two frontmen like Premiership footballers playing keepie-up.
Like its predecessor, this album is obsessed with dreams and fantasy. But where ‘Up The Bracket’ was English lawns, gin in teacups and the Beano, this time round the real world keeps intruding in all its gory glory. During the brittle and honest‘The Saga’, the careering new-wave clatter pauses and Pete mutters, with a junkie’s sly self-delusion: “No, no, I ain’t got a problem. It’s you with a problem”. In the rest of the song he appears to grasp the gravity of the situation (“When you lie to your friends/And you lie to your people/And you lie to yourself/And the truth’s too harsh to comprehend/You just pretend there isn’t a problem”). It’s suddenly obvious why bandmate Carl wouldn’t talk about this song for NME recently. Although you only have to wait a moment for Carl’s acerbic reply as the song segues straight into‘Road To Ruin’: “How can we/Make you understand/All you can be/Is written in your hand?”
‘Last Post On The Bugle’ started as a hymn to preserving love while miles apart. Now it dwells on Pete’s time in prison for the burglary of Carl’s flat. The irony is there’s more than a little light-fingeredness in the writing of this desperate classic. The verse’s infectious melody and most of its lyrics are lifted from an obscure psychedelic classic, Masters Apprentices’ ‘War Or Hands Of Time’. A fact Pete felt the need to get it off his chest – “a simple act of theft” as he put it on www.thelibertines.org.
Closing track ‘What Became Of The Likely Lads’ is equally stunning. A companion piece to‘Can’t Stand Me Now’, it’s a plea for the old days when it was The Libertines against the world. It’s Carl, Pete, John and Gary, being upbeat in the face of doom. If the upper lips were any stiffer you could balance commemorative Chas and Di royal wedding plates on them.
Despite conflict being writ large over the album, the only actual fight occurred during the recording of‘Music When The Lights Go Out’, a beautiful acoustic strum. Elsewhere, the songs not explicitly dealing with Pete’n’ Carl’s relationship are even better.‘Campaign Of Hate’, ‘The Ha Ha Wall’ and ‘Narcissist’ are La’s-inspired Libland anthems superior to anything on the debut. Meanwhile ‘What Katie Did’ and ‘Don’t Be Shy’ display a new-found tenderness.
But it’s ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ that’s perhaps the album’s greatest achievement. Displaying the best “la la la”s since Morrissey first flexed his larynx for‘This Charming Man’, it then dissolves through a haze of trumpets into a waltz as deliciously hazy as ’‘Golden Brown’.
‘The Libertines’ even manages a little social commentary. The 73-second punk thrash ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (translation: ‘Work Liberates’) takes its title from the sign above the gates of the Auschwitz camp where millions of Jews were gassed. Ladling it on thickly, its payoff comes from a British soldier who fought the Nazis but doesn’t like “blacks or queers”.
Finally, there’s‘France’, a fragile lament sung by a weezing Carl to a former French girlfriend. After the fighting, it’s a moment of beauty, like sunshine after a storm: a reminder of what The Libertines are. And what they could still be.
Whatever happens, this an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime album, proving The Libertines are both the stuff of revolution and aesthetic princelings among the (very) lumpen indie proletariat. We won’t see their like again.