Babyshambles: Notorious or unknown

New album "Down in Albion" by this generation's Keith Richards


The New York Times

A few weeks ago, two very different post-punk albums appeared on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. The one available in Britain came from one of that country's best-known rock stars, and it arrived after years of tabloid speculation. In print and in blogs and (no doubt) in bars, listeners debated whether it was a triumph or an embarrassment.

The one available in America came from a decidedly underground singer; it sneaked into stores with little fanfare and never showed up on the Billboard charts. It was embraced, when it was embraced at all, by a small cult of fans.

Still, these albums do have a few things in common. They both bear the imprint of the British indie-rock label Rough Trade. They are both named "Down in Albion." They are both credited to Babyshambles, a group led by Pete Doherty, who has spent the past few years redefining rock 'n' roll decadence. And, come to think of it, they both contain the same 64 minutes of music. But that music probably sounds different if you live in London.

In that, maybe we should envy the British. All we get is a CD. (And not a cheap one, either: In shops and online, "Down in Albion" costs upwards of $25.) Doherty's compatriots, on the other hand, get a multimedia circus. He first became a British rock star with the scrappy and often great punkish band the Libertines. But by last year, when the band released its self-titled second album, Doherty had already spent a few months in jail for burglary, which might have been a bad omen even if the victim hadn't been a bandmate.

Doherty split with the Libertines to concentrate on his other band, Babyshambles. He spoke in interviews about his struggles with crack cocaine and heroin, and chaotic Babyshambles concerts were routinely overshadowed by reports of even more chaotic behavior offstage. His sporadic relationship with the supermodel Kate Moss only made him more notorious, especially when video surfaced that showed her in a music studio, seemingly snorting cocaine. But he continues to outdo her: a week ago Wednesday, Doherty was arrested yet again in London, on suspicion of possessing Class A drugs. (That's the category that in Britain includes cocaine and heroin.)

Given all that, it was inevitable that the debut Babyshambles album would be scrutinized for evidence of Doherty's sordid life, and in fact he makes that easy. He hasn't even finished the first stanza of the first song, "La Belle et la Bete," before he announces, "It's a story of a coked-up pansy/ Who spends his nights in flights of fancy." And if, near the song's end, that voice singing backup sounds suspiciously nonprofessional, that's because it belongs to Moss.

It's a messy, sometimes insane CD, and it includes a few songs that seem designed to provoke angry reactions from skeptical listeners. The most infamous is "Pentonville," named after a London prison and sung by the General, a reggae singer who is said to have met Doherty there. When the album was released, the impetuous British music magazine NME awarded it the mildly disappointing score of 7 out of 10. (On one message board, the album earned a brilliant, if inscrutable, three-word review: "Lousy but alright.") A couple of weeks later, when NME announced its list of the year's 50 best CDs, "Down in Albion" was comfortably installed at No. 9, between Kanye West and Gorillaz.

Yet it's not hard to see, too, how the British might envy us. While their Babyshambles CD arrived amid a ruckus, ours arrived almost secretly. And that might make it easier to enjoy the music, which turns out to be mysterious and subtly seductive. Even the lyric booklet takes a while to decipher, but eventually the ripped-up images and crossed-out, rearranged words start to tell a story, though not one it would be easy to retell.

Doherty is obsessed with myths: with myths of Britain and with myths of rock 'n' roll. In "Albion," a half-disintegrated ballad that he has been playing live for years, he sings of a miscellaneous country: "Coffee-wallahs and pith helmets and an English sun/ Reebok Classics, cannons at dawn." His unsteady, slurred voice helps make these lyrics seem less grandiloquent.

"Down in Albion" isn't likely to turn Doherty into an American rock star. So far, Rough Trade hasn't announced an American release date. No matter. We've got plenty of our own stars to gossip about. And for the next few months, we also have something that the British don't: an obscure and somewhat mysterious and ultimately lovable album, as well as the chance to explore it in peace.