Babyshambles: Shotter’s Nation (Parlophone) ***

It is, at least, far better than their tragic debut. Pete Doherty’s promise, however, remains unfulfilled.

THE BBC’s recent Seven Ages Of Rock series featured two Pete Dohertys. One was the fleetingly articulate rag-and-bone man of tabloid renown. The other was the pin-sharp up-and-comer who, with Carl Barat, dreamed up The Libertines. Amateur footage captured Doherty and Barat playing a gig in their own flat, which, in the spirit of their makeshift mythology, they rechristened the Albion Rooms. When a neighbour calls the police, Doherty casts a puckish glance at his band-mate and instinctively strikes up The Clash’s ‘The Guns Of Brixton’: “When they kick out your front door/How you gonna come?” It’s a joyously off-the-wall moment.

The clip came as a useful reminder of a time when Doherty demanded attention for all the right reasons. He was uniquely appealing, as accessible as a busker yet somehow intangible, like a fictional character who had hot-footed it off the page and might one day be summoned back. He had wit, charm, imagination and the wide-eyed beauty of an urchin fawn. And he embraced music as if it were not a choice but the only option. In a previous era, he would have run off to join the circus.

That all feels like a very long time ago. The Libertines’ recording career lasted less than two and a half years. Doherty has been an ex-Libertine, and Britain’s leading drug depository, for almost three. Where The Libertines once displayed the cheerful energy of an Ealing comedy, Babyshambles are more like a patience-testing farce stuffed with arrests and releases, romance and rejection, rehabilitation and relapse, on and on in an endless loop: Carry On Up The Crack Pipe.

Throughout it all, though, Doherty has kept working. It sometimes seems that he only stops gigging long enough to appear in court and be snapped by the paparazzi, but here comes his second Babyshambles album in two years, the band’s first for Parlophone. Their debut, Down In Albion, was, to quote Pulp, the sound of someone losing the plot, a record that occasionally offered the fractured intimacy of such drug-damaged cult favourites as Skip Spence’s Oar and Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs, but more often seemed like a cautionary exercise in demonstrating how potentially good songs can perish from neglect.

One suspected that Mick Jones’s production duties didn’t extend much beyond barring the studio door until he could secure a half-decent take, so the appointment of old pro Stephen Street (Blur, The Smiths) signals a leap in ambition. Street and new guitarist Mick Whitnall conspire to drag Babyshambles’ sound out of the bedsit with the Graham Coxon-like textures of ‘UnBilotitled’ and the muscular groove of ‘Crumb Begging Baghead’. There is a wholly unexpected moment in ‘French Dog Blues’ when Doherty yowls the word “highway” over widescreen drum rolls and briefly threatens to turn into Bruce Springsteen. It all sounds remarkably professional. Unlike the nocturnal decay of Down In Albion, Street’s day-bright production showcases Doherty’s songwriting strengths: unpredictable, fleet-footed melodies that rarely follow a simple verse-chorus-verse trajectory, arresting phrasing (“smoking cigarettes down to the bone”) and an invigorating looseness. The surprises are pleasant ones. On the strolling jazz of ‘There She Goes’, he’s an East London Tom Waits, boozily reflecting on lost love: “I caught a glimpse of your white plimsolls/ Twisting and turning to Northern soul”. The band claim inspiration from Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, although The Cure’s Robert Smith might point out that it’s a lawsuit away from being ‘The Love Cats’.

Although Shotter’s Nation doesn’t wallow inautobiography quite like Down In Albion did, that couplet is one of several that may be about a certain tabloid-friendly supermodel who is credited as co-writer on four tracks. “I never said it was clever/I just like getting leathered”, from ‘You Talk’, allegedly written during a stay at The Priory and finished with Moss’s assistance, could have come straight from a tiff — you can just picture Doherty’s helpless expression and upturned palms. In ‘Carry On Up The Morning’ he sighs, “Given up trying to explain/I put it in a song instead”. On ‘UnBilotitled’ he ungallantly croons, “You said that you loved me/Oh, why don’t you fuck off?”

Co-written by long-serving partner in crime Wolfman, ‘UnBilotitled’ is a moment of true magic, pivoting on a gorgeous chiming guitar figure that could liquefy your heart. The rippling ‘The Lost Art Of Murder’, featuring veteran folk guitarist Bert Jansch, is almost as good. There is a poignant pause in the chorus between the words “stop smoking” and “that”, as if the tiresome reality of Doherty’s predicament has momentarily winded him.

But elsewhere there is something missing from the revamped Babyshambles. The mythology has crumbled, the eccentric romance has faded and there is nothing as eloquent or transcendent as Down In Albion‘s title track. It’s been an article of faith for Doherty loyalists that their hero possesses genius that will dazzle the world once it has been unclouded by drugs, but Shotter’s Nation weakens that theory. Thanks to Street, these songs are as good as they’re going to get and only one of them is unarguably great.

Still, one shouldn’t underestimate the achievements of this sturdy, confident record. It finally presents Babyshambles as a cohesive band and shows Pete Doherty to be the last thing you might have expected: a survivor.

© Dorian LynskeyQ, November 2007

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