By Mark Guarino
Anyone keeping on top of celebrity news is well aware of Pete Doherty, Britain’s most famous face on the courthouse steps. A self-proclaimed drug abuser and on-again, off-again boyfriend to supermodel Kate Moss, Doherty is more famous on this shoreline for his continual arrests (last one to date: Aug. 20) than he is for his music.
There is hope that will change with this week’s release of “Shotter’s Nation” (Astralwerks), a second album from Babyshambles, Doherty’s band that has yet to perform a complete tour and has never been heard from outside the U.K. The album’s release is a difficult sell for its American label: Babyshambles is unknown except to Brit-pop cultists and its lead singer and songwriter has worked hard to sully his name though a revolving door of arrests on drug charges that by now border on absurd. England either has a worse court system than California or Doherty is in serious need of hard and fast intervention. Or both. Whatever the case, his band will be a footnote to his rap sheet.
Next month he faces a jail sentence but is currently in rehabilitation under court order.
Without Doherty’s infamy, is Babyshambles worth a listen? According to lyrics, even he is not sure: “Writing songs is just a game/I’m getting good at cheating at,” he sings. Whether intended or not, Doherty’s personality is undeniable in these songs. Even though it clocks in longer than it should, the album is winsome if only because Doherty’s slackened vocals and loose approach hold an appeal. No matter what his life is like outside the studio doors, Doherty brings to the music a definable carefree persona that jerks the music in way that makes you interested. He carries himself like a rock star, and unlike his U.S. counterpart Ryan Adams whose ambition overwhelms his ability, at times during this album Doherty shows flashes of that promise.
In 2001, Doherty made his name with The Libertines, a band he co-founded with musical partner Carl Barat who he then notoriously split from in a situation involving burglary, jail time and an increasing appetite for drugs. Barat brought the band to the U.S. but Doherty stayed home to later form Babyshambles. Both bands were triumphed in the British press due to Doherty’s strong lyrical attitude that would later be co-opted by bands like the Arctic Monkeys that would prove to be more stable. Doherty cultivated the role as a debauched poet — a lot classier than Johnny Rotten, but no less interested in becoming a provocateur. In a nation consumed with polite, media-friendly, one-name bands like Travis, Coldplay, Keane and Muse, Doherty’s bumbling placed him squarely in a different era, represented by working class chroniclers like Ray Davies or Joe Strummer.
No surprise then that there is a definite Kinks and Clash pedigree to “Shotter’s Nation,” from a “You Really Got Me” rip-off (“Delivery”) to other, less obvious examples where guitar riffs are clearly-defined but sound frayed at the edges, some with traces of ska. Recorded by top tier British producer Stephen Street (Blur, The Smiths), the album is reduced to the barest frills, leaving Doherty to assume the central role, slurring his vocals and, in several moments, breaking a song’s dramatic peak by whistling. Like “Down in Albion” (Rough Trade), Babyshambles’ debut, there are a handful of songs here that would create any career, no matter what back story the tabloids sell. “Carry On Up the Morning,” “Crumbeam” and “Deft Left Hand” are psychedelic, ragged and have a grandness to them. Lyrically, Doherty is a conversationalist, getting you into his head immediately. Which means there are confessions (“I messed my head and I miss my head”) and some pretty good jokes (“Destined to drone in monotone on your radio/It’s a little dream of mine”).
But like Doherty’s life, excess wins out. Even at 43 minutes, “Shotter’s Nation” delivers filler, which gets too much for music that sounds as brilliantly off-the-cuff as this. At this point in the game, he is best appreciated in a fast entrance and faster exit, leaving the illusion that being in shambles carries with it a certain genius.