Release Date: Sep 11, 2015
Record label: Harvest
The LibertinesAnthems for Doomed Youth(Harvest/EMI)Rating: 4 stars out of 5 Their time together was brief and volatile, and unfortunately defined in large part by Pete Doherty’s extracurricular tabloid-baiting behavior, but The Libertines solidified their place in British music history in the stroke of just one album. Their 2002 debut Up the Bracket was the stuff of buzz-band dreams, stacked up from beginning to end with punk rock anthems and heroic rock ‘n’ roll melodies. Less than a year after The Strokes dominated the press cycle with their own auspicious debut, Is This It, The Libertines countered with a uniquely British counterpart, more London ‘79 than NYC ‘77.
In 2004, after a barely-made-it-out self-titled album, the Libertines imploded at the height of their exciting but unpredictable rise. In 2015, the Libertines are keenly aware of their standing in the music world and the sense of importance and cult-like status that's attached itself to the UK four-piece since they disbanded more than a decade ago. Old feuds, drug habits and side projects have been kicked to the side for the time being, and the older, wiser and cleaner Libertines know they have a lot to prove with their third full-length, Anthems for Doomed Youth — and while they may not exactly capture the magic that made the previous two records near-instant classics, they sound damn well determined to give it a go.
The third Libertines album arrives 12 years after its predecessor. Like many resolutely British products, including Royal Doulton china and Dr Martens boots, its production was actually outsourced to Thailand: on one track, you can hear the sound of the waves breaking on the beach at Bang Saray. Moreover, it was recorded with Jake Gosling, whose charge sheet includes producing One Direction’s What Makes You Beautiful, co-writing Ed Sheeran’s multi-platinum album + and, indeed, working on the second album by that legendary purveyor of ramshackle art-punk with lyrics fixated on a mythic vision of England, Chris Moyles.
It was a rise and fall like no other. In fact, if the story of The Libertines was pitched as a film to someone with no prior knowledge of the band, it would probably be dismissed as too outrageous to be true. Following the release of their critically-acclaimed debut, Up The Bracket, the relationship between the quartet became increasingly fractious, with Pete Doherty’s drug problems spiraling out of control.
Over a decade after their heyday, the Libertines are still the only post-Britpop British indie band with an enduring mythology. That mythology began before the band even existed, written into being in Pete Doherty's journal. Like a lovelorn teenager, he scrawled "Doherty/Barât" across countless pages, in which he also laid out his and Carl Barât's poetic ambition: "To gain a measure of immortality in the plastic bubble of popular culture.
The concept of certain members of The Libertines actually existing within this mortal sphere in 2015 was a colossal source of doubt for some time back in the mid-'00s, let alone that they would be still releasing music together as a band. And even more unlikely was the thought that their third album-11 years after the compelling, messy, bedraggled, and raggedly appropriate eponymous album seemingly brought their story to a premature end—is actually a thing of simple, fulfilling joy and creative inertia. The thrown punches and black eyes have been replaced by the early joy of Pete Doherty and Carl Barât in tandem—still behaving like mischievous schoolboys playing truant but this time with a more worldly guise, as shown on the exceptional "Fame and Fortune" with its "Been there, seen it" dismissal of London's hipster hordes.
Personal problems can be distracting even for the most professional, but it must be fair to say that the almost unavoidable publicity surrounding the ongoing drama of Pete Doherty and the Libertines is a little draining. Unfortunately the band are almost better known for tabloid headlines than the music itself, which according to Doherty, is the sound of “someone put in the rubbish chute at the back of a council estate, trying to work out what day it is”. And indeed this description (a little rough on the outside, as well as dramatic) excellently characterises much of Anthems for Doomed Youth, the Libertines’ “comeback” after an eleven year studio break.
It's hard to think of a more fitting title for the Libertines' third album than Anthems for Doomed Youth. After all, youth is destined to end quickly way or another, via either death or getting older. Pete Doherty, Carl Barât, and the rest of the band managed to survive their twenties, and in the 11 years since they've made an album, they seem to have gained the knowledge that you can't just rehash the past.
For reunited bands, opting to make new albums instead of just milking the enormo-gig cash cow is something of risk – make something that doesn’t match up to your peak years and you risk destroying your legacy, like Guns ‘N Roses or Hole. As such, the news in December 2014 that The Libertines would be making a new record was both exciting and nerve-wracking. The last time Pete, Carl, John and Gary released an album (2004’s self-titled second), they were still young men caught up in the eye of a very turbulent storm involving drugs, arrests and the band’s subsequent implosion.
In the early 2000s, the Libertines soaked up comparisons to Oasis and the Strokes, while singer-guitarist Pete Doherty hoovered all the drugs in London. With those days behind them, the Libs have returned for their first LP since 2004, full of sharp garage slop, glam anthems, Waterloo sunburn and loads of references to their collapse ("Woke up again to my evil twin/The mirror is fucking ugly, and I'm tired of looking at him," co-frontman Carl Barât sings on "Gunga Din"). Whatever personal clarity they've attained has done nothing to dilute their music's heroic wastedness.
Confessional balladry defines the damaged icons’ reunion. Not since Zeppelin at the O2 has there been an easier rock open goal than The Libertines’ reunion. So drug-fucked and half-arsed was Pete Doherty’s contribution to 2004’s self-titled second album that simply turning up and sounding like he’s not just whimpering along for crack cash will be hailed a triumph.
Now that Carl Barât and Pete Doherty have proven they are capable of collaborating again, they can go away and write a better album than Anthems for Doomed Youth. Eleven years after an eponymous record that presaged a series of ignominious public meltdowns, the Libertines have assembled a collection of solid tunes, three quarters of which boast hooks stuck into unsurprising rock arrangements. Anticipating the collapse gave their early-‘00s albums their tension; now the former likely lads want to convince their audience that there’s a point to adult songwriting.
Amidst the tabloid haze, stagnant chart-hitting guitar music and recent Mum-look-I’m-on-the-telly sized gigs, it’s hard to remember that the Libertines have only actually ever released two albums. Cracking ones, at that – ones that changed the face of indie music for a generation and led the way for the last 2006 wave of popular guitar bands like the Arctic Monkeys. But a discography so relatively small that you can hold a single disc in each hand.
“Back in London’s grey-scotch mist, staring up at my therapist/ He says pound for pound, blow for blow, you’re the most messed-up motherfucker I know.” References to roughed-up history lace “Belly of the Beast” and the rest of The Libertines’ new album, Anthems for Doomed Youth, unsurprisingly to anyone who’s followed the band. Patches of the album were written when Carl Barat visited Doherty during the guitarist/vocalist’s stint in a rehab program in Thailand, and the band followed up by recording the album there as well. “There’s a miracle aspect to actually getting it done and all getting together to do it,” Doherty told NME.
When was the last time you listened to The Libertines? Sure, they’re still easily heard in cheap alt. clubs, and ramshackle traces can be found in the last few post-landfill indie bands that still spring up from time to time. But for most people, myself included, The Libertines got tied up in a bundle of nostalgia (and mild shame) for an age of gin in teacups, guerrilla gigs and red military jackets.
It’s an astonishing fact that the long-running soap opera that is The Libertines’ career has mildly piqued the nation’s interest for just two years less than teenage snogfest Hollyoaks. Along the way the leading duo have been through numerous drug hells and scandals, and occasionally written some songs about them. This time the twist is that Peter Doherty has been through an apparently successful rehab programme and, as a result, reunited with swarthy charmer Carl Barât; cue much rejoicing from wannabe street urchins the length of Camden High Street.
There is an unfamiliar clarity and punch to guttersnipe guitar outfit the Libertines on their late-life return, thanks in part to producer Jake Gosling (Ed Sheeran, One Direction), tasked with taking this most scurvyish foursome upmarket. Even with Pete Doherty clean, and their songcraft to the fore, Anthems for Doomed Youth has the unmistakable tang of opportunity squandered. A decade ago, when the Libertines imploded in acrimony and addiction, songs such as You’re My Waterloo (“You never fumigate the demons, no matter how much you smoke”) or the Arctic Monkeys soundalike Heart of the Matter might have sealed the Libertines’ reputation as a classic British act rather than a class A-team horror show.
“An ending fitting for the start / You twisted and tore our love apart” It’s not often a band has the chance to write their own epitaph, but The Libertines did, and at the time looked to have seized that opportunity perfectly. Can’t Stand Me Now, written at the point where the friction between songwriters Carl Barât and Pete Doherty was leading them towards musical alchemy, drew a veil over a fledgling career whilst also showcasing everything that made them great in the first place. If life is often free-form prose, The Libertines had managed to find a full stop.
Beirut usually do okay for themselves when they expound on well-established modes of musical communication. Perhaps then the jig is finally up on No No No, their fourth album in nine years. Ostensibly their pop record, this brisk, 29-minute album album runs out of ideas in the first ten. Play it and forget it.