A couple of days ago, Babyshambles put a track from their upcoming album onto Youtube, 'Farmer's Daughter' from September's Sequel to the Prequel. This followed the unveiling of the new single, 'Nothing Comes to Nothing', their first single since 'You Talk' reached UK chart #54*, their lowest chart hit to date. This observation may seem superfluous, but the song's chart position was indicative of its low popularity within Babyshambles' fanbase: 2007's Shotter's Nation, produced by Stephen Street (who produced the slick indie of acts such as Blur, Kaiser Chiefs and The Ordinary Boys), disappointed original fans because of its cleanness - to a lot of people, it just sounded uninspired. I liked the second album, but 2004's Down in Albion has lingered in my affections for longer, not for its rawness of sound but for its rawness of emotion, its lyrical brashness and the way that the scanty production allowed the crack(s) to show through. Album Two was certainly lacking in something, though great tracks like 'There She Goes' and 'Carry on Up the Morning' made up for it.
The Youtube commentariat have already cast their vote on 'Nothing Comes to Nothing', and it looks like the disappointment surrounding Shotter's Nation might be up for a renewal. A commenter named Jordan Schmidt announced, "they really nailed that Generic-Indie-Rock sound", whilst Keith Lennox wrote "meh, it's okay, nothing more than that". A more moderate commentator suggested that "the middle of the road is nothing to shy away from". Most fans were crueller. "The old, classic and messy Babyshambles sold out", Jack Davies claims, and one typical voice asked "Where are the bum notes and the passion of the off key vocals..." A lot of those claiming to like the song sound like apologists, one summarising: "fuck man doherty has to make a living somehow". Quite.
Apologism in the music industry is hard to avoid. People get deeply emotionally involved with their favourite bands, and it's hard to let go and admit that the band you've invested in have made a bad album. Some adjust themselves rather than losing the bands - Youtube user BreckRoadLover21, who is clearly familiar enough with The Libertines to name him/herself after one of their earliest records, probably identifies with the band enough to take to their new, cleaner sound. Those who think that the middle of the road is better than the 'Side of the Road' are probably later fans, or fans who've grown out of their old punk spirit, and they're the type of listener that the Angry Young Men of 2004's audience almost certainly reject - would the old Doherty, the one who yelled "THEY'LL NEVER PLAY THIS ON THE RADIO" over 'Fuck Forever', have expected to attract fans who hum 'Delivery' while doing the dishes?
'Farmer's Daughter' was perhaps a relief to more hard-line fans. Featuring Peter's stilted guitar playing - still slightly jarring to the unexpectant listener - the song is more like 'Carry on Up the Morning' than 'You Talk', but it's far from '8 Dead Boys' or 'La Belle et Le Bête'. Where are the reggae beats that hung behind 'Pentonville', or the disjointed guitars and uncoordinated vocals of 'Pipedown'? Some people are seeing this as Babyshambles' early decline. So many rock bands grow up and out of fame - rock 'n' roll was always a cult of youth, and stars like Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop, as well as clearly being exceptions to the rule, seem farcical next to the young bands. Whether it's fair or not is another question, but old rock musicians have to pass through the 'mocking' stage before they reach the Hall of Fame. Most never get there.
I don't know - sometimes I think that even I'm an apologist of sorts. I loved The Libertines, and Babyshambles, and Dirty Pretty Things (Hell! Even Yeti!) but recently, neither Carl Barât nor Pete Doherty seem to have been writing quality songs, and I'm losing faith in Pete as a lyricist in recent years. Perhaps the missing link in the last two Babyshambles album has been a driving, idiosyncratic guitarist - Mik Whitnall is a strong player, but his style belongs more in Oasis than a lo-fi once-punk band.
As a fan, I'm going to give Sequel to the Prequel a try when it comes out in September. The Youtube commenter who suggested "singles are meant to be commercial" might have put his finger on the problem with 'Nothing Comes to Nothing' - as a piece of songwriting, it's kind of generic, but I thought that about 'Killamangiro'; maybe it's too soon to judge the album. Then again, I think a lot of fans are expecting Sequel to the Prequel to be a little bit like the Damien Hirst artwork which adorns its cover - suddenly accepted into the establishment, the canon, and less interesting for it.
*'Side of the Road', released for Record Store Day 2010, didn't chart at all, but it was only released as a limited edition 7" vinyl.