The Libertines are lost, violently swirling within a British punk rock dream. Even the sneaker-tapping and smiles brought on by listening to the tough, yearning pop on this, the quartet's theoretically great self-titled follow-up to their 2002 debut Up The Bracket, poorly hide the fact that they are caught in a mournful, if damn stylish, race against rock's eternally reposed and eulogized. Their singer and guitarist, Peter Doherty, with his determined baby face and olive-mottled eyes, reportedly bounces in and out of rehab weekly for an eightball appetite. Such media-documented exploits have threatened to overshadow the band itself, which has been forced to tour without him. Despite all this, the Libertines, more than all of their contemporaries, play man-be-damned on the finite fumes of youth, reciting punk rock lessons as if they were written by J.M. Barrie.
The Libertines is solely produced by former Clash guitarist Mick Jones (who also produced Up the Bracket), a natural fit. Its fourth track, "The Man Who Would Be King," allows Doherty to pour out attitude, unfurling a pack of fairytale la-la-la's down Notting Hill before snarling with an anxious calm, "I lived my dream today, and I have lived it yesterday, and I have lived it tomorrow, uh, don't look at me that way." Fleshing out his stories of doom are the rackety drug addiction/denial tale "The Saga," and the reflective ballad "Music When the Lights Go Out," on which he and fellow guitarist Carl Barat are drawn into a rock-out fight like young sibling rivals.
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The entire album, like Up The Bracket, is devoid of filler. The London Calling-like variation of the tracks, helped by its islands of ska, psychedelia, and moptop choruses, saves it from tumbling apart, weighted by the romanticism that envelops its creators. "What became of the dreams we had, what became of forever ... We'll never know," shout Doherty and his mate Barat at the album's thematic conclusion, "What Became of the Likely Lads."
Kicking around in an entertaining, self-absorbed, past-tense life prevents the Libertines from ushering in the bloody emergency and idealistic promise of Seventies punk heroes such as the Sex Pistols and the Clash, despite having the appropriate look, as if they had been orphaned by that chaotic decade. What does that say about the state of rock? Who the hell cares? Love and music are the Libertines' last resorts; without those, they're fucked. What that says about life has always been obvious.