We demand the most from musicians who are also drug addicts. We expect them to give all of themselves to us, to emote fully, to express their vulnerability through their music in the starkest of terms. All this is true, of course, until their final freak-out, their final overdose, when we promptly forget about them: they burn out or fade away, doomed never again to create meaningful art.
Pete Doherty, the lead singer of Babyshambles, fully emobodies this musician-as-junkie archetype. Doherty is probably the coolest man in England. He was kicked out of his old band, The Libertines – which he founded – because of his incessant drug use and erratic behavior. Over the course of a recent three-hour interview with Rolling Stone, Doherty smoked crack, shot up heroin, and took Ecstasy – all without losing his basic level of coherence. He has been arrested time and again, spent his fair share of time in jail, and once broke out of the most intense rehab center in the world. The supermodel Kate Moss is his sometimes girlfriend. Put simply, Doherty is rock and roll. Which is why Babyshambles’ debut, Down in Albion, a mostly effective mix of edgy rock and Britpop, is nevertheless disappointing.
Down in Albion opens with a self-conscious narcissism. On the record’s first track, “La Belle et la Bete” (“Beauty and the Beast”), Doherty croons alongside Kate Moss, wondering if “she’s more beautiful than me.” He declares: “This is the story of a coked-up pansy / who spent his nights in a flights of fancy.” Here begins an exasperatingly long journey through the mythological life of a rock star. Yes, Pete, we know you do a lot of cocaine; yes, Pete, we know your girlfriend is a supermodel.
Doherty’s grating faux-vulnerability is exacerbated by the song’s overproduction. He’s backed by staccato electric guitars and an occasional bass, both with very monitored and controlled feedback. The drums frequently change tempo, but their jazz-like riffs clash with the natural rhythm of the song. As a result, “La Belle et la Bete” feels staged, planned, almost forced: the production kills any emotional charge the song might have had. Doherty is singing what he thinks we want to hear – about the drugs, the models, the life of a true rock star – but in the process he’s shutting us out of any musical or lyrical truth. “La Belle et la Bete” is trying to be haunting, but when Doherty’s voice cracks, it’s very difficult to believe him.
A whole lot of Down in Albion follows “La Belle et la Bete’s” example – marginally autobiographical rock and roll that doesn’t quote cut it. In “A’rebours,” Doherty declares, off-key, that he was “knock knock knocking on death’s door”; on “Sticks and Stones” he sings of “fame on the run”; on “Back from the Dead,” he again revisits the life of a rock-star: “This ain’t no happy place to be / You know they’re nice around me.” This all seems a little too self-conscious: we’re left with the underwhelming sense that Doherty is faking, that he’s writing the lyrics he thinks he’s supposed to write. The music – mainly electric ska-riffs with an overemphasis on minor chords – is not good enough to overcome the lyrical flaws, the lack of honest emotion behind the songs. Doherty’s pain seems affected, not quite the stuff of a man about to implode.
Doherty’s songwriting is at its best when he avoids singing about himself, or at least about others’ conception of him. The album’s only two outstanding tracks, “Albion” and “Fuck Forever,” transcend his self-conscious stardom and speak to a broader audience. “Albion,” Doherty’s elegy for old England, opens with an acoustic guitar strumming softly (a disclaimer: I love rock and roll odes to old England, to marmite, the Queen, even to Thatcher). The acoustic guitar is soon joined by a sad, soothing, organ, and Doherty sings about the problems at the heart of British society: “Down in Albion / we’re black and blue / but we don’t talk about that.” England is suffering, and Doherty is too. He misses an England that once meant something, or at least an England that he believes once meant something.
Doherty sings nostalgically of “gin in teacups and leaves on the lawn / yellowing classics and canons at dawn.” In “Albion’s” outro, Doherty asks the listener to “come away” with him. As he evokes the names of old English towns, the guitar builds to a crescendo, and Doherty shouts, mourns, for “anywhere in Albion.” Entirely gone is Doherty’s narcissism and rock and roll swagger. Instead, “Albion” speaks softly to a nation’s lost faith in its leaders and sense of purpose. “Albion” is a song in the best tradition of the nostalgic anglophilia of The Beatles, The Kinks, and The Clash.
“Fuck Forever,” the album’s second track – and hit single – more fully articulates “Albion’s” vague despair. Opening with an ominous electric guitar riff, Doherty sings of the hopelessness of politics: “What’s the use between death and glory?/ I can’t tell between death and glory / New Labour and Tory / Purgatory and happy families.” But the minor atonality of the verse soon straightens out ; the drums come in, the bass evens out, and the chorus is all sweetness: “So fuck forever / if you don’t mind.” The politeness is off-putting, almost jarring. This is nihilistic pessimism coated in sweet Britpop, an Oasis-type gem from the mid-nineties transplanted to our much more depressing times. “Fuck Forever” proves that Doherty is capable of making rock and roll almost as well as he lives it.
For the last week or so, I’ve been listening to “Fuck Forever” on repeat. Its deceptive and depressing sweetness speaks to something in me, a sort of resignation about the stagnant state of my own life as well as the unfortunate state of the world in general. It’s anthemic, even. In “Fuck Forever,” Pete Doherty, for at least a moment, captures the latent pain of a generation that doesn’t much care about what the future, what forever, might hold.