Among the young, hungry bands that spearheaded the garage rock revival of the early 2000s, four lads from London carried the torch for raw British classicism. The Libertines, spearheaded by the songwriting duo of Pete Doherty and Carl Barât, debuted with wild rock and roll in the vein of early Clash, Jam, and Buzzcocks. Fittingly produced by Mick Jones of the former group, 2002’s Up the Bracket was recorded in a freewheeling live-in-the-studio manner, with little to no overdubbing or complex mixing added to The Libertines' unpolished revivalism.
With the growing success of their movement, linked with bands like U.S. counterparts The Strokes and The White Stripes, The Libertines’ 2004 self-titled second album became a breakthrough hit. Yet during the recording of that album, the cracks in Doherty and Barât’s once-inseparable friendship had not only begun to show, but were threatening to swallow the band whole. Doherty’s out-of-control use of crack cocaine and heroin had begun to cause rifts with the other band members, and Barât in particular had become increasingly uneasy with Doherty’s constant circle of hangers-on, enablers, and vagrants.
In 2003, Barât refused to attend a series of Libertines gigs, and for his part Doherty stopped showing up altogether, even as the band’s fantastic single Don’t Look Back Into the Sun - produced by Suede guitarist Bernard Butler - scaled the charts. Few knew at the time that Doherty’s vocals on the track had to be pasted together from various outtakes and snippets; Doherty had particularly refused to work with Butler, who ended up recording Doherty’s guitar parts for him.
A series of personal slights and petty squabbles ensued, and as The Libertines toured their first album in Japan without him, an angry Doherty burglarised Barât’s apartment and was promptly arrested and sentenced to time in Wandsworth Prison. Barât was waiting for Doherty at the prison gates on the day of his release. That day, the reunited friends played an impromptu gig at the Tap’n’Tin pub in Chatham, Kent. The show became NME’s Gig Of The Year, and a series of sold out dates at the London Forum were named by Q Magazine as among the 100 best shows of all time.
Yet old habits die hard, and soon Doherty’s drug use had placed the band in the same turmoil it had once recovered from. During the recording of their second album, security guards hired for the protection of Doherty and Barât had to be routinely used to keep the two men from fighting. The duo, who share vocal duties on most songs, gave poignant insight into the dissolution of the band through the lyrics recorded at the time. Highlight tracks from the eponymous second album featured the two squaring off with biting honesty. “Have we enough to keep it together?/ Or do we just keep on pretending/ And hope our luck is never ending?” sang Doherty on Can’t Stand Me Now. Barât cut to the heart of their rift on What Became of the Likely Lads?, as he crooned: “Please don’t get me wrong/ See I forgive you in a song we’ll call the Likely Lads/ But if it's left to you, I know exactly what you’d do/ With all the dreams we had.” Touchingly, ironically, the anthemic chorus of the song is sung by the old friends in tandem, a fitting parting bow: “Oh what became of the Likely Lads?/ What became of the dreams we had?/ Oh what became of forever, though?/ We’ll never know.”
By the time the finishing touches were being put on The Libertines’ incredible second album, Doherty had left the band. Soon, Barât called an end to the group, as he was unwilling to continue performing without Doherty. One of the most exciting acts of their era, who had respectfully updated ’70s punk rock for the modern indie generation - becoming a profound influence on songwriters like a 16 year old by the name of Alex Turner - had fallen apart.
Six years of little-to-no contact between Doherty and Barât followed, with each pursuing their solo projects Babyshambles and Dirty Pretty Things, respectively. Doherty became a tabloid fixture as his relationship with Kate Moss unfurled, and the singer was often in and out of rehab facilities in England and abroad, sometimes leaving in a matter of days only to return high. Dozens of legal incidents and arrests followed his unsuccessful attempts to get sober, and more jail time ensued.
When he was free, Doherty spent the majority of his time with gangsters, drug dealers, and fellow addicts in syringe-strewn, squalid flats. The untimely demise of a gifted, intelligent artist seemed inevitable. Doherty’s death was often predicted by the press who hounded him day and night, like vultures stalking the troubled artist in the same way Doherty's close friend Amy Winehouse was chased until her dying day. Babyshambles turned out two surprisingly solid records in that time, while for his part Barât led Dirty Pretty Things to great success over the course of two studio albums; both solo projects bucked the downward-trending trajectory such projects usually follow.
In 2010, there came an announcement that The Libertines would temporarily reform to play the Reading and Leeds festivals. Considerable excitement ensued, and the shows were critically lauded, yet both frontmen maintained that the reunion was only intended to be a brief one. And it indeed seemed to be, until another string of shows was booked in 2014. At the time, it was rumoured that Doherty had finally gotten clean, fresh from a long stint in a Thai rehabilitation facility. There seemed to be hope for The Libertines yet.
So it comes to pass, as the group’s third record arrives after 12 years in the offing. The three other bandmembers flew out to Thailand to be with Doherty, where they recorded their new material together; on one song, the sound of waves crashing on the beach at Bang Saray can be heard. Jake Gosling, glossy producer of One Direction and Ed Sheeran, replaces Mick Jones for recording duties, but alarm bells need not be triggered: Anthems for Doomed Youth is a fine and fitting return from a band whose story seems the very stuff of living, breathing, strutting, singing cinema.
Taking its name from a Wilfred Owen poem, Anthems for Doomed Youth recalls the strengths of the bands’ early work while sounding - dangerously - mature. The musicianship is stronger, tighter, and more restrained, and for the most part, the lyrics show how far this band of brothers has come. Few would have predicted that these wild souls would still be kicking over a decade past their manic best, but there's fight in them yet.
Heart of the Matter is a fast-paced rocker with heart, a more mature evolution of the songs this London group used to do so well. “With all the battering it’s taken/ I’m surprised it’s still ticking,” Doherty sings, conscious of the paparazzo speculations cast upon him throughout these turbulent ten years. Some of the wild aggression has been left behind, perhaps by dint of Gosling’s careful direction, but the producer’s hand is never obvious. Gosling handles his role with restraint and professionalism, and these songs sound like they represent exactly where The Libertines want to be in 2015; older, and yes, even a little wiser.
On opening track Barbarians, guitar feedback gives way to a tense rhythm as Barât sings above splashy surf guitar: “This one’s for your heart and for your mind/ The melody’s in 4/4 time/ You get in right and it rings true/ And now they’re coming out in droves/ Out of the burrows to the shows/ There’s nothing else to do/ All I want is to scream out loud/ And have it up with a mental crowd/ ’Cause I believe somehow/ The world’s fucked but it won’t get me down.” The familiar voices sound older, deeper, while the band's old sonic trademarks are restrained and kept tasteful. Where excess and willful abandon once prevailed, The Libertines now opt to turn to songcraft and introspection. The results are enjoyably affirming.
Doherty at last sounds like a man closer to 40 than to 30 when he sings on lead single Gunga Din. “Woke up again, to my chagrin/ Getting sick and tired of feeling sick and tired again,” he laments, darkly reflective on his weaker moments. “I try to write, because I got the right/ To make it look as if I’m doing something with my life/ Got to find a vein, it’s always the same/ Had a drink to ease the panic and the suffering/ I woke up again/ Dreamt of Gunga Din.” The song, led by a fantastic guitar riff and Doherty's patented slow, ska-influenced rhythm, is a potent reminder of how great The Libertines were at their best. Though Anthems for Doomed Youth highlights like Gunga Din don’t stand side-by-side with the artistry of the band’s best work, one couldn’t reasonably expect it to. Instead, these songs are a joyful celebration from Doherty and Barât; an exuberant burst of happiness for being back together after all this time.
On Dead for Love, a slow, uneasy tale of love and murder, Doherty writes like he’s been taking notes from the Nick Cave songbook. “Just keep breathing, you’ll be fine/ Now she’s pulling up outside/ The car lights crawling across the curtain/ So put the gun back on the wall/ Take the suitcase from the wardrobe/ There’s a dead man on the floor/ He’s not going anywhere/ And you’re moving to the door,” Doherty sings in his signature doped-out drawl, grown hoarser over hard years. It’s the sort of song a younger Doherty couldn’t have made; there is a restraint and carefulness to the composition here. Though the rowdy excitement of younger years has passed, we are reminded of the lasting talents of these Libertines.
More than once, the self-mythologising and biographical witticisms of these songs can be trite, as on Fame and Fortune, where the faux-singalong chorus borders on cringeworthy dad-rock: “Like tin soldiers responding to the call/ To Camden we will crawl/ One and all.” Yet for every such moment, there come consistent flashes of brilliance. On You’re My Waterloo (a reworked version of a track from the 2004 incarnation of The Libertines), Doherty croons a piano-led ballad for perhaps the bands’ most tender moment thus far. Similarly, The Milkman’s Horse is a rousing downtempo anthem, on which Doherty and Barât trade pensive lines and we’re reminded of the pair’s uncanny, synchronised kindred-spirit best.
Ultimately, Anthems for Doomed Youth is the sort of record this band had to make if they were ever to reform. Doherty and Barât have grown as men and as musicians, while lyrically they spare no opportunity to delve headfirst into personal exorcism, sentimental recollection, and fond celebration. The songs aren’t as memorable nor as bold as they once were, and perhaps The Libertines' ability to capture the zeitgeist has passed, but very few groups have returned from a period of such length and of such turmoil with so much promise left alive.
For a band who were always about style in at least an equal a measure to substance, there is a lot of heart here. The story of The Libertines is the story of the endearing, troubled, yet enduring friendship between Carl Barât and Pete Doherty, and Anthems for Doomed Youth is perhaps the world’s first - for lack of a better term - bromance album. The story this album tells is above all else the story of two estranged friends meeting again, years down the line, and finding that they can still share a day in the sun.
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