Fifty years into its life span, rock music has developed an entire wing devoted to period styles. The Strokes relive New York post-punk circa 1981. The White Stripes dip into the blues boom of 1963. For Oasis, the Beatles will forever be in fashion. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; rock has always made a virtue out of returning to roots. Nevertheless, these bands seem different—rather than looking to the past for reinvigoration, they’re content to ape it.
Two major British bands continue the trend. Arctic Monkeys work with the post-punk template, and Babyshambles, whose singer, Pete Doherty—known in the U.S. mainly as Kate Moss’s partner in cocaine abuse—is determined to live out the most clichéd doomed-rock-star narrative.
Arctic Monkeys have become the most hyped band in the world in less than a year, thanks in part to fans sharing demo versions of their songs over the Internet. They already have two No. 1 singles, and now their debut album is the fastest-selling in British history.
Such success virtually demands that cultural significance be invented for the band, but that gets in the way of the simple pleasures they provide. The typical Arctic Monkeys song is short, sharp, and stripped-down. A pileup of furious staccato riffs leads into an even more furious chorus, sung by Alex Turner in a northern twang that’s tender and sardonic by turns. It’s simple, effective, and extremely satisfying stuff, as far as it goes.
Then there are the lyrics. Turner has a knack for fitting wry observations of teenage life into three minutes or less. He can write short stories about drunken nights out. And he can invent instant catchphrases: On “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” he imagines his lust object’s “Dancing to electro-pop like a robot from 1984 / From 1984!” The line is both funny and apt. On “Mardy Bum,” he argues with a girlfriend who’s “got the face on.”
Arctic Monkeys are so young, they’ve probably spent more time listening to the Strokes than to the post-punk bands the Strokes were inspired by. This accounts for some of their freshness; they don’t sound jaded. It also makes them inheritors of a sound that gets ever more inbred. The first time around, post-punk used everything from dub to post-structuralist philosophy to subvert rock-song form. Now it’s the essence of conservatism.
Pete Doherty knows plenty about nostalgia. With his first band, the Libertines, he created a variant of Romanticism that draws equally upon English tradition—embodied in Albion, the ancient name for the country—and French Symbolist poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud.
Romanticism, with its outsider chic and visionary excess, was the fuel behind the high days of sixties rock, and Doherty is on the downside of the narrative arc. His cartoonish catalogue of debauchery is too extensive to detail—suffice it to say that, just two weeks ago, he pulled off the impressive feat of getting arrested three times in ten hours.
Such behavior makes the Doherty reality show a fixture of the English press. It is also producing a rapid decline in the quality of his music. Up the Bracket, the Libertines’ first and best album, from 2002, had a spiky, ragamuffin attitude: Even as the songs sound like they’re falling apart, they pulse with energy. But on Down in Albion, a fog has descended, and you can hear the band trying to fight their way through it.
There’s a certain macabre voyeurism to be had from this. The scratchy, ratcheting riff on “Fuck Forever” sounds like Frankenstein’s monster lurching around, and on “Albion,” Doherty unfolds his poignant, if somewhat hackneyed vision of seedy England, a place of “Gin in teacups / And leaves on the lawn / Violence in bus stops / And the pale thin girl with eyes forlorn.” But a good 50 percent of the album is unformed and lethargic—particularly the anemic reggae numbers, which sound like mid-seventies Stones filler.
It takes a certain chutzpa to snort a line of cocaine through a page torn from a Paul Verlaine biography, as Doherty recently did for the benefit of a Mojo reporter. This is not breaking on through to the other side; it’s pure tabloid melodrama. Had crack been readily available in 1870, Rimbaud might have thought twice about the rational disordering of all the senses. The bohemian ideal has been outstripped by technology, and Doherty is a walking wake for it.