“So what's the use between death and glory? I can't tell between death and glory.”
This was the Babyshambles of 2005. Lead by a frontman who was arrested four times that year, dating the world’s most famous supermodel and still reeling from the demise of The Libertines. Pete Doherty seemed destined to bow out from his life of tabloid notoriety before hitting 30 years old.
Whether you believed him to be Oscar Wilde reincarnated as a Camden-bred street urchin or Julian Casablancas with a crack habit, his story was compelling. Not since Sid Vicious had a British musician so cravenly flirted with oblivion while commanding a vehemently devoted following.
What about the music? NME got it spot on when Babyshambles’ debut album, Down In Albion, was described as 'the best demo you'll hear all year.' Mick Jones didn’t so much produce the LP, as press record and eavesdrop as the band descended into an abyss of guttural guitar and cacophonic vocals. In ‘Fuck Forever’, ‘Albion’ and ‘Pipedown’, the band captured three snapshots of undiluted triumph. Had ‘Killamangiro’ not been subsumed by Class A fumes and the highly libellous ‘Gang of Gin’ escaped a barrage of legal threats, then a classic might have been born.
As it was, Babyshambles trudged on. To death? To glory? No one knew.
“We could see monkeys. We could see snakes. We could see penguins. Ah, penguins are great.”
This is the Babyshambles of 2013. Pete Doherty is praising the joys of going to the zoo. We’d question exactly what he’s been smoking, but the answer is all too clear.
Even the most cursory listen to Sequel To The Prequel can’t disguise the sad truth at its heroin-flecked core: Doherty is far more interested in taking drugs than making songs. Arguably, this has been a defining trait of his tragic existence for some time now. On Babyshambles’ third album, it’s blindingly obvious.
In recent interviews, the boy formerly known as Bilo has freely admitted that bassist Drew McConnell pushed the album’s songwriting process forward in spite of his apathy. Sadly, the fate of both McConnell and guitarist Mik Whitnall is tied to Doherty’s and he fails to deliver - even by the middling standards of 2007’s Shotter’s Nation. Lead single ‘Nothing Comes To Nothing’ is a microcosm of the record’s woes, a sunny tribute to The Kinks that’s sullied by slurred lyrics and a whimpering howl.
Singing has never been Doherty’s strong point. His voice works best when matched with threadbare chords or a scatty squall of noise. Producer Stephen Street can shoulder some of the blame for ‘Fireman’s muted squelch and the dreary mutterings of ‘Maybeline’, especially since they’ve been knocking around for years in some form or another. Equally, booking studio time with the chap behind Viva Brother, The Courteeners and The Ordinary Boys can only be viewed as a one-way ticket to Plodding Indieville; a desolate seaside resort on the outskirts of Beigeton.
If anyone was going offset these languid conditions with a rascal’s smile and a cheeky toke of his pipe, you’d have bet on it being Doherty… of eight or so years ago. When presented with respectable material like the fiddle-tinged ‘Picture Me In A Hospital’ or ‘Doctor No’s fidgeting ska shuffle, it’s as though he’s puffed away his ruffian spirit. Without imminent catastrophe in sight, there’s only himself to rally against; a fight he’s never had much stomach for. Hence ‘Penguins’ exists to distract from Sequel To The Prequel’s more troublesome failings.
Babyshambles once promised to keep the Arcadian dream alive. Instead, they’ve fizzled out in a fit of mediocrity.
“What became of forever? Though. We'll never know.”
5Robert Leedham's Score