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Sequel To The Prequel Emily Mackay , September 3rd, 2013 06:47

Listen, no one is more surprised about this than me, but this record is actually quite good. No, I'm serious. No one finds Pete (yes, I know he likes to be referred to as Peter now, I do it just to annoy him) Doherty more unbearable than me. I hated Babyshambles' first album, I was indifferent to their second, and god, don't even get me started on his solo stuff.  That infuriatingly feckless voice, those half-formed, rambling songs...

And the problem with Babyshambles was always that it was Doherty's baby; whatever you thought of The Libertines, the fact remains that he and Carl Barat formed one of those songwriting partnerships that never work as well once severed; Barat bringing the structure and the punch, Doherty the melody and romanticism. On his own, Doherty's muse lacked focus (and, in often returning to songs that had been demoed years before rather than writing strong new material, freshness). He's a man, in short, that needs a foil.

The fact that this record sounds so surprisingly sharp and sprightly is down to Babyshambles member Drew McConnell stepping up to that plate. In 2011 McConnell suffered a serious cycling accident, requiring months of painful convalescence and intensive physio. That's the sort of experience that makes a man reevaluate things and reframe his perspective, and McConnell came out of it determined to bring Babyshambles back from the brink of irrelevance (or indeed, nonexistence). A lot of the songwriting, and all of the organising here is his.  

Doherty, meanwhile, was languishing in Paris. After the debacle of his film with Charlotte Gainsbourg, a rather unsavoury NME interview revealed a man in such rude mental health that he'd recently found himself drunk and naked in the supermarket trying to buy petits pois while a dog chewed his underwear in the street.

A more recent interview suggests that the musical kick up the arse delivered by McConnell has had its effect; Doherty is trying to clean up, while Mik Whitnall has managed to kick the smack.

More compelling evidence of a revitalised Babyshambles, though, is right here; clean or not, the band here sound energised, like they're having fun again, like they've remembered what it is they're supposed to be doing. There's little in the way of musical surprises - the well-crafted songs are haunted by familiar scruffy ghosts of Kinks, Clash and ragamuffin reggae. What really grabs you by the ears is the spunk of the thing.

Opener 'Fireman' has the hammering, careering-on-the-edge-of-the-rails drive, with Doherty's drawl at a Mark E Smith-level levels of yowling, snarling, caterwauling weirdness, while the standout 'Maybeline' is an intensely lovable thing with a riotous sped-up ending and an addictive chorus that rhymes "million in prizes" with "Devizes". That sort of lyrical playfulness recurs throughout the album, suggesting that Doherty's relearning the fun of creation - there's little self-regard or self-referentiality apart from a wry line in the country-Joe-Strummer-ish 'Fall To Grace''s "can we go someplace where they know [alternated with 'don't know'] my face/Gather round now, bear witness to my fall from grace".

'Penguins' exuberantly hymns the wonders of the bipedal bird of the title on a posited trip to the zoo (watch out for your knickers this time, Pete) on top of a reference to 'Johnny B Goode' and a playful threat to nick you off your boyfriend, while 'Seven Shades Of Nothing', a gutterpunk, scratchy reincarnation of Talking Heads' 'This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)' finds him asking "Are you trying to say this world's not beautiful enough?". Vocally, too, he's back to full pelt, especially on the appropriately pastoral 'Farmer's Daughter', and the vamping, bar-room Dylan romp of the title track.

It's a sunny, sweet, excitable record, but it doesn't forget a couple of moments of contrast; 'Doctor No' has Doherty's disreputable Dickensian skank to it, with wily harmonic slinking round its corners. 'Minefield' too, is moodily great, slowly unfurling over glowering bass as Doherty incongrously howls: "Have you ever heard of such a thing in your life?/Three blind mice".

Never mind the visually impaired rodents: have you ever heard of such a thing in your life as good Babyshambles record? Well, you have now.