The Libertines self titled second album is 17 years old today. Back then, at the age of 21, I dreamed of being a music journalist but never made it happen. A friend did ask me to write a review for the Rock Against Racism fanzine, however, and here it is.
The story of The Libertines has always been a turbulent one. Debut single “What A Waster” was never going to get any radio play, for obvious reasons. Debut album Up The Bracket was littered with references to live in the rough and tumble of London’s East End whilst trying to keep some perspective and direction, with tales of the Albion and the Arcadian dream.
Rumours and gossip, much of the time planted by the band through colourful interviews, are distorted and discussed the world over by fans and critics alike. More recently there has been in-band fighting, theft, escalating drug addiction, rehab and a near-final total split.
And the tabloids and music press follow it avidly, talking it round and round until it seems to have little or no connection to the music itself – some wild saga or soap opera more interested in crack and cocaine, angry ex-girlfriends and court hearings than the songs. So this is where The Libertines steps in.
From the first tangle and jangle 20-second intro to “Can’t Stand Me Now” to the final slow down, stop and start drums of “What Became of The Likely Lads?” the album is through and through the product of the chaotic time between their debut and this, their second album, each track filled with references to, inspired by or tainted by past events and misgivings.
Most obviously, “Can’t Stand Me Now” is an ode to Pete ‘n’ Carl’s dented friendship, as both argue and bicker in trademark poetic fashion of heroin addiction and anger at being rejected from the band last summer, all over a classic, powerful tune. Perfect material for the album’s first single, and an ideal first chapter to the following album.
“Last Post On The Bugle” sees a would-be song of missed love turn into a sorrowful, downbeat tune backed by repetitive guitar riff. “Don’t Be Shy”, appearing somewhat out of place through its sheer initial exuberance, fits in perfectly with its message of live for the day, take what you have and, in the words of their first album, “Fuck ‘em”, complete with the highest vocal chorus since the Bee Gees.
“The Man Who Would Be King”, a soft then loud track, with fragile piano-backed verses leading toward a haunting, lulling chorus, the piano turning into a waltz during the outro. “Music When The Lights Go Out” comes in with a pattern of curving guitars, turning into a ballad to the loss of the first lust or love in a relationship.
“Narcissist”, the fiercest track on The Libertines, lively in the vein of “Don’t Be Shy”, sings to vanity and a longing to be part of the showbiz world of models and magazines. “The Ha Ha Wall” is The Libertines’ statement of intent around hypnotic circle guitars and adamant drums, to making success out of boredom and idleness. “Arbeit Macht Frei” is a punk blast in less than two minutes, beating guitars and a non-PC ode of ironic hypocrisy inside a history lesson.
“What Katie Did” is one of the best pop songs written by a rock ‘n’ roll band in the last ten years, with a pristine singalong chorus recently revealed to be written to a troubled ex-friend. “Tomblands” is a fast, dark sea shanty filled with talk of drug abuse and being on the run. “The Saga” a confessional track of denial, acceptance, then denial of a problem – which problem is left to the listener to conclude.
“Road To Ruin”, the song of the Albion’s ever-stormy voyage to Arcadia, always swayed off course by outside forces, yet always re-affirming the underlying beliefs: “Trust in me, take me by the hand, all that you need is right there in your hand, you don’t need money…” over the top of an organ backing.
Final track “What Became Of The Likely Lads” brings the album back round to a close. The sister track of “Can’t Stand Me Now”, directly questioning the partnership of Pete ‘n’ Carl and the standing of the band, whilst at the same time reinforcing the band’s Smiths-like fascination of the England of old through the blatant reference to the 60s comedy series.
At encapsulating the essence of The Libertines, their intentions, their habits, their obsessions, their influences and their constantly individual songwriting style, the album succeeds.
Where their debut focused on displaying life in London’s inner city underworld, The Libertines gives a portrait of life and the problems inside Britain’s most exciting current band, and pulls it off with the smattering of charm and melody you would expect them to deliver.