CD: The Libertines, The Libertines

(Rough Trade)

It's no surprise that the Libertines have become one of the most infamous bands in Britain. Theirs is the great rock'n'roll story of our times, a saga of drugs and shots at self-destruction to match any of the legendary tales of excess passed down from the 1960s. More than that, theirs is a great love story, an exquisitely painful romance of two self-proclaimed soulmates who can't live together yet can't live apart. No wonder everyone from tabloid newspapers to music monthlies wants warring frontmen Pete Doherty and Carl Barat in their pages. While not quite revelling in the attention, the duo are certainly taking advantage of it. For all their differences, Barat and Doherty share an enduring love of mythology and self-mythologising: in interviews and weblogs they talk of the band as a ship called Albion, sailing for Arcadia, a realm of freedom. Who can blame them for exploiting every chance to spin more stories around themselves?

For months now, Doherty and Barat have talked about each other to just about anyone apart from each other. Nothing that they've said, however, has pinpointed the disparity between them as savagely as Can't Stand Me Now, number two in this week's singles chart and the opening track on their second album. They start with a spat: "You twist and tore our love apart," accuses Barat; "You know you've got it the wrong way round," Doherty throws back. Then comes the chorus. They're trading the line "You can't stand me now". Barat sings boldly, almost blithely. But for Doherty, joining in sounds like agony. The word "you" rumbles in his throat like a half-choked sob. The second time he sings the line he takes a huge breath before sighing it out. It's as though he must draw on every reserve in his body to sing these words, because doing so tears his sinews in two.

Listening to the song, you realise The Libertines isn't simply an album: it's the central chapter in a sprawling roman à clef . Song after song seems to refer directly to Barat and Doherty's fraught relationship; never has the mention of girls in lyrics felt so much like a ruse. "The girl I thought I knew is gone, and with her my heart it disappears," lilts Doherty in the anguished Music When the Lights Go Out. The track was largely written by Barat some months ago, but that doesn't stop it sounding achingly current and apposite. Just as moving is the chorus to What Katie Did, this time a Doherty lyric sung by Barat: "Since we said goodbye, the polka dots fill my eyes, and I don't know why." Katie could be real or a figure from a dream; how much more appealing, though, to think of her as Barat disguised.

The album is laced with love, but that love is laced with confusion, longing and fractured hope - conflicting feelings expressed in a series of taunts and appeals. The duo may join forces to sing "we're thick as thieves" in the album's closer, What Became of the Likely Lads, but Barat keeps demanding: "If that's important to you." Each time Doherty affirms, "Yes, it's important to me", frustration mounting when he isn't believed. The competition between them is even more marked in The Man Who Would Be King, where Barat sings: "I lived my dreams today ... and I'll be living yours tomorrow." There's something appalling about that line: after all, Barat has spent the past few weeks touring the world promoting this album while Doherty languishes at home, feeling betrayed.

In Road to Ruin, Barat finally melts with solicitude: "Trust in me," he pleads, "take me by the hand", obliquely instructing Doherty to give up drugs. Unfortunately, he sounds just like Ka, the scary snake in The Jungle Book. Doherty's bolshie response lies in The Saga: "No, no, I ain't got a problem."

Such is the overwhelming solipsism of the album, so heavy the weight of autobiography hanging over it, that listening is a curiously mutable experience. Initially it feels leaden, the roisterous energy of the band's 2002 debut, Up the Bracket, dissipated and replaced not with maturity but hesitancy. You think of the fistfight that broke out between Barat and Doherty on the first day of recording, of the minders keeping drug dealers out of the studio, and wonder that the band were able to play at all.

Slowly, though, an awareness of light and colour seeps through. You're struck by the softness of What Katie Did and the swagger of Campaign of Hate; by John Hassell's excitable basslines and drummer Gary Powell's deranged snare ripples. You realise that Mick Jones's sludgy production does the Libertines no favours at all: it's only when you listen through headphones that you start to appreciate how many joyous whoops and fingerclicks and bizarre sounds are buried in the mix.

Close listening reminds you that we shouldn't care about the Libertines because they take drugs: we should care about them because they make thrilling music. But with two such volatile personalities at the band's heart, drama will always take precedence. A step on from Up the Bracket, this album is a winningly idiosyncratic explosion of dizzy pop and punk fury that could yet be honed to perfection. It's deeply saddening to think that the band might never get the chance to fulfil that potential. Yes, Doherty is still making music with his other band, Babyshambles, and a secret track, France, at the end of this album shows that Barat can knock up a lovely ballad on his own. But there is something so special about their relationship, about the love-hate dynamic between them, that you wouldn't want to see them part.

The album's cover shows Barat and Doherty reunited on the latter's release from prison last year. It's an astonishing image, the pair radiating tenderness, pain, pride, diffidence, a desire to protect and be protected. Here are two people clinging to each other, sailors on a shipwreck, searching for shore. "If I have to go," Doherty sings in Last Post on the Bugle, "I will be thinking of your love. Oh somehow you'll know - I don't know how but you'll know - I'll be thinking of your love." There is a faith in those words, a sense of trust that seems to have faded since the album was recorded in spring. It's hard not to think of The Libertines as a valediction. It's even harder to think that this is the end.


Maddy Costa

The GuardianTramp

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