For post-punk inspired indie rock fans, the late '90s were a relatively stale few years of music. The top-notch indie records which wrapped up the era mostly came from a softer or more folk-inspired direction, seen through Neutral Milk Hotel, Belle & Sebastian, Yo La Tengo, The Magnetic Fields, Cat Power, amongst many more. On July 30th, 2001, when The Strokes released their debut Is This It, that notion was gone, and post-punk was back in full gear. Over the next few years, bands like The Strokes, The White Stripes, Interpol, and of course, The Libertines took the underground spotlight back as the post-punk revival was back in full swing. In the pool of top-tier early 2000s records, The Libertines' debut Up the Bracket sits damn near close to the top.
Alongside some help from The Strokes and Jack White on the American side of the pond, The Libertines reintroduced an aggressive, reverb-laced guitar as the centerpiece of the traditional rock outfit. The guitar prowess of Pete Doherty and Carl Barât was unleashed to the world in 2002, with the unmatched chemistry of the two becoming incredibly infectious across the American and British indie underground. The encapsulating technique employed by the two generally involved one playing a steady, driving guitar pattern making up the rhythm guitar line, while the other would play a more abrasive, spontaneous guitar melody on the lead part. The trading of who would play lead, and who would play rhythm added deeply to the sheer complexity of Up the Bracket, creating an unpolished, rough-edged sound summarizing the modern post-punk sound. It also allowed a level of sonic diversity with both guitarists who granted, had similar styles, still had unique musical tendencies. One the one hand, Pete Doherty had a more emotive, chaotic and intensity in his playing versus Barat, who was a tad more controlled and slightly more pollished.
With the record now passing its 21st birthday, it's pretty well-known that the relationship between Doherty and Barât was a deeply complex one, with the two having a relationship tricky to put into words. The resulting complicated relationship led to a level of songwriting far and few between. All twelve songs on the record have their songwriting credits split equally between the two, with both contributing to the vocal work as well. Songs like The Good Old Days and Tell the King feature both sharing the vocal duties, whereas The Boy Looked at Johnny and I Get Along are more of The Carl Barât show. Regardless, both Barât and Doherty were gifted with perfect voices for the post-punk sound.
Up the Bracket sits in a small assortment of indie records without a single dud of a tune. All twelve tracks are great, although some certainly shine brighter, like the album-titled track, I Get Along, Time For Heroes, and The Boy Looked at Johnny. The record's closing track I Get Along holds almost a Zeppelin-like feel around the guitar lines, unleashing a powerful and loud guitar line as the tune's main melody. The riff is somewhat in the vein of Babe I'm Gonna Leave You by Zeppelin, an effect The Strokes borrowed to a much more noticeable extent on Take It or Leave It. The speedy, loose hi-hat, and chaotic-sounding guitar solo paired alongside Carl Barât's aggressive, often atonal vocal style is pure punk to its core. Of all the head-banging tracks on the record, I Get Along might just go harder than any of them.
Even though the Up the Bracket sound is one mainly of power and aggression, the band shows a beautiful amount of restraint on songs like The Good Old Days and Tell the King. As a listener, it's incredibly satisfying to hear punk outfits add layers of color and beauty to their records, in a way that fast, aggressive songs can't quite do. To that point, Tell the King ends with a beautiful, traditional English folk-inspired outro. Even though the folk outro is a brief one of only four lines, its beauty comes out of left field and can stop you in your tracks. Of course, a mere three seconds after, when The Boy Looked at Johnny kicks off, you snap right back into punk-laced reality.
By our metrics, The Boy Looked at Johnny is perhaps one of the most criminally underrated indie rock tracks of the century. The electrifying, multilayered guitar playing over the fast-paced drumming is hypnotizing. Barât and Doherty battling it out vocally in the burlesque-sounding chorus is equally electrifying, creating an infectious sound that The Fratellis seemingly borrowed on the chorus Chelsea Dagger. I mean seriously... listen to them side by side, The Fratellis got that chorus from The Libertines... right? It's been 16 years since both songs have been released, and I see nothing online about the blatant similarities between the choruses, but make no mistake it's there.
Crowning the finest song from this electric LP is a challenge, but I could probably narrow it down to Time for Heroes or Up the Bracket. Starting with a vocal cord-straining scream, Up the Bracket is another uptempo, post-punk anthem that simply comes off as a catchy, memorable tune with yet another perfect guitar riff. On the other hand, Time for Heroes comes off as a more complex, colorful tune with some of Pete Doherty's most melodic, Joe Strummer-like vocals. Alongside Pete's vocals, Time For Heroes definitely harbors the record's best and most complex guitar solo. Employing a challenging technique of harmonizing vocals with the guitar, the last segment of the guitar solo showcases an immense amount of musical class.
Up the Bracket was not only one of the best albums of 2002, but also one of the best albums of the decade. The chemistry between Doherty and Barât has been matched by only a few since then. As one of the first records of the post-punk revival, Up the Bracket alongside The Libertines has been cited as influential by The Kooks, Catfish and the Bottlemen, The Vaccines, and The Arctic Monkeys. Carl Barât's later band The Dirty Pretty Things' 2006 release Waterloo to Anywhere also harnesses substantial sonic similarities to Up the Bracket. The early 2000s post-punk revival was huge for indie rock, dominating the sound for almost ten years, and it's hard to see the scene looking as it does now without Up the Bracket. Up the Bracket is one of the finest British rock albums of the last 40 years and is certainly one of the most impressive debuts of the modern era.