"Raw" and "sloppy" are two very different things. I'm reminded of this distinction throughout repeated listens to the highly infectious Up the Bracket, the debut album by London-based ruffians The Libertines. Produced by ex-Clash man Mick Jones, whose band made some very raw-sounding but tight records back in 1977, Up the Bracket sounds great despite the flubbed notes, off-key vocals and red-metered screams The Libertines produce while showcasing their hodgepodge of rock styles.
And they've got style. Miles of style, even. From the vaguely "Lust for Life"-ish guitars and incessant drums of album opener "Vertigo" to the thrashy trash of "Horrorshow" and "I Get Along" to the swaggering call-and-response of "Boys in the Band," Up the Bracket simply rocks. A deep vein of schizophrenia runs throughout the release, as the band alternates moments of poetic brilliance with a strong dose of stone-cold street thuggery, pulling both off with admirable aplomb.
So where to begin, the cockiness or the poetry? The album opens with the shuffling sounds of "Vertigo," which draws you in with strains of both. A busy bass line, insurgent drums and skittish guitar riffing introduce the characters Koreema (the apple of the singer's eye) and a drunken prophet, caught in one of those anxious "Do I or don't I?" moments. The deed, or at least the chatting up, done, the singer can only ponder his impetus: "Me myself I was never sure/ Was it the liquor/ Or was it my soul?" "Death on the Stairs" channels the nihilistic spirit of the New York scene circa the late '70s, with its brilliant chorus of "So baby please kill me/ Oh baby don't kill me."
The urban punk spirit continues through "Horrorshow" and "The Boy Looked at Johnny" (a line from Patti Smith's "Horses/Land of a Thousand Dances/La Mer (De)" that later served as the title of a book about punk by Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons). The latter is a masterwork of what I can only describe as "retard rock," with the singer bellowing the verses over a simplistic Chuck Berry-style guitar riff, leading up to a chorus of multiple "la de di la de di da diddy"s before segueing into a guitar solo that wants to be bad in a good way, but just remains bad. Yet it's good in spite of itself, which may ultimately be The Libertines' way.
OK, so to this point you've probably got The Libertines sussed out as a stone-cold stupid lot despite the occasional bit of shrewd trickery. Yet the same band delivers great lines like "Did you see the stylish kids in the riot?/ Shoveled up like muck set the night on fire" and "He knows there's fewer more distressing sights than that of an/ Englishman in a baseball cap/ Now we'll die in the class we was born/ That's a class of our own." Both are from "Time for Heroes," which echoes the workingman's fiction of Allan Sillitoe, if it doesn't quite match Philip Larkin's poetry. It beats anything Morrissey's delivered in the past decade, anyway. And the way they coolly spit out a line like "He knows it's eating, it's chewing me up, it's not right/ For young lungs to be coughing up blood" over a stuttering rhythm-guitar part simply kicks my ass.
Even better is "Tell the King," which reminds us that even in today's England, "If you come up the hard way/ They remind you every day:/ 'You're nothing.'" A punky statement of purpose, "I Get Along," closes the album with a last bit of snottiness, its central lines delivered to perfection: "I get along singing my song/ People tell me I'm wrong:/ Fuck 'em."
Or so it should've been. but the end of the U.S. release tacks on an earlier single, "What a Waster," a "tough-love" (if not downright mean) treatment of drug addiction. It delivers the voice of the streets, where a junkie is to be scorned as much as pitied, but its inclusion here detracts a bit from Up the Bracket's impact. A weird thing, to be sure, insofar as the album is already all over the map, but there you have it. A rather silly, unlisted acoustic track, "Mocking Bird," is also added, to minimal effect.
More life-affirming than life-changing, on Up the Bracket the Libertines deliver a stellar set of songs that both musically and lyrically neatly synthesizes the past 40 years of English rock, from the British Invasion through the punk era and on past the Britpop age. And it's garage-y enough that the kids should dig it too.