arl Barat and Pete Doherty could be lovers; hell, I wish they were. On the cover of their eponymous second album, the singer/guitarists lean breathtakingly close, with Doherty in the act of showing Barat a tattoo on his arm bearing the band’s name. Their body language radiates intimacy; with his dangling locks and pink kissable mouth, Barat could be Doherty’s strung-out girlfriend. It’s not like the two haven’t explored the possibility. The album’s most touching song, “Music When The Lights Go Out,” features Doherty wrapping his ravaged pipes around the lyrics, “All the memories of…the drugs and the tubs/ We shared together/ Will stay with me forever.” Cute, ain’t they?
I’d rather learn that Barat and Doherty were fucking each other than about another tiresome drug-related arrest. The pre-release publicity for The Libertines was, to be blunt, devastating. The band was in shambles: they’d replaced Doherty, who was in jail; then they sacked the replacement; Doherty returned. British critics have retracted the extravagant praise heaped on its predecessor, Up The Bracket. They have a point: this eponymous album doesn’t cohere like Up The Bracket, a record which threatened to combust on just about every track (kudos to producer Mick Jones, whose former band the Clash knew something about combustion). The Libertines don’t even try for a good album; they sound like four blokes lucky to be jamming in the same room again, and their joy in each other’s company redeems the enterprise.
But the Libertines don’t cotton to notions of “maturity” and such anyway. The wisdom that critics expect from a band with so troubled a past hasn’t descended on them yet. All that Barat and Doherty have realized is that recklessness has consequences; the drugs have turned them into the narcissists they attack on one particularly effective song (“Oh what’s so great about being Dorian Gray”), as well as cemented an ominous self-loathing (the single “Can’t Stand Me Now,” as ravaged and beautiful as a Keith Richards ballad). Since no one can deny that the Libertines are one of the few bands capable of sustained guitar anarchy, Barat and Doherty’s craft signifies at the most basic level: The Libertines offers immediate pleasure. Whether it’s sustained pleasure depends on you.
And it’s probably the album’s middle stretch that will decide that for you. Comprised of four songs barely two minutes long, it’s the point where the Libertines prove they’re not the Strokes. Of course they’re not, you’ll say; but you’re the exception. Lots of critics compared the Libertines to the Strokes—absurd really, kind of like saying the Only Ones and The Cars are sonic cousins. For one, the machine-tooled aerodynamics of the Strokes are beyond them, and who’d want that anyway? “Arbeit Wacht Frei” and “The Ha Ha Wall” don’t go anywhere, but they’re not aimless either, rather like the medley on the second half of Abbey Road. The guitars growl and curl around each other, like exhausted lovers, and crisp snare work keeps inertia at bay.
Part of what makes the Libertines so fascinating is the discomfiting way in which these four young Brits force us to consider how the pain of drug addiction is finally inseparable from the inclination to dramatize your suffering for an audience all too willing to watch. This time you keep fans guessing by recording a batch of unfinished tunelets filled with the kind of self-referential lyrics on which a band relies when on its last legs. Given the circumstances The Libertines is the only record these guys could make right now. Sure it’s a mess, but so’s life. But take heart: they know they’re hot shit. “If you’re tired of hanging around / Pick up a guitar and spin a web of sound,” Doherty offers on “The Ha Ha Wall”. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Even if Barat doesn’t get him hard anymore, Doherty understands the addictive qualities of the instrument he plays so deftly.