You might not believe me, but the Libertines just released an album. For the last decade, the idea that the Libertines would get back together and record again seemed nigh impossible, marred by internal conflicts between Pete Doherty and Carl Barat, hit-or-miss side-projects and the sense that the dream of the Libertines had well and truly died. Though the Libertines played sloppy alternative rock back in the day, their lyrics, their ear for pop was the centre of the Libertines appeal. Doherty and Barat’s love for everything World War I, rose-tinted nostalgia for pre-war Britain mixed with modern description of drug dens, their Camden haunts and life barely above the poverty line brought them into the twenty-first century. But here’s another Libertines album, full of the same things they talked about before, but perhaps with a more mature overview over everything that has happened since their last album, 2004’s The Libertines. It’s surprisingly cohesive; the most technically proficient and well-crafted album they’ve made since Up The Bracket, which was their debut and a class in rowdy sloppiness. The worries about a pop producer, Jake Gosling, are thankfully unfounded as he does little to clean up the Libertines act beyond the glossy pop production that landed ‘Gunga Din’ back on Radio 1 alongside the likes of early Libertines singles ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ or ‘Don’t Look Back Into The Sun’.
Another worry was the amount of new material the Libertines have arrived with. Surely they can’t still write good songs? As side-projects have shown, both Doherty and Barat can still write decent songs, but when they come together they can write future favourites ‘Heart Of The Matter’ or ‘Glasgow Coma Scale Blues’. The only old song returning is ‘You’re My Waterloo’, a Doherty-fronted ballad that mostly lives up to old interpretations, except for a farty orchestral section that pops in now in then. Even though the Libertines aim for emotional highs, even ballads like ‘You’re My Waterloo’ have their own rough edges on it. Doherty self-references ‘You’ll never fumigate the demons / no matter how much you smoke’ with heavy pianos. Anthems For Doomed Youth seems intent on letting Doherty and Barat spill their guts all over the lyrics, with the duo often trading the admitting of regret and biting remarks.
Anthems For Doomed Youth is also the most the Libertines have sounded like their influences. ‘Barbarians’ is a near-perfect rip of ‘That’s Entertainment’ by the Jam and ‘Fury of the Chonburi’ sounds like the Libertines doing their best Clash impression, from the chanted chorus to the simplistic punk instrumentation. It’s by no means a bad rip-off, it mostly goes off without a hitch, from the bridge which sounds like the Doherty and Barat attacked each other with their guitars and Gary Powell’s furious drumming. Another punk highlight is ‘Glasgow Coma Scale Blues’, which has the best start to a track on the album. The vocals, which are a little quirky during the verse, turn into a chorus with the same anthemic nature as ‘Gunga Din’ does, without the weird reggae beat. The shrieking guitar that cuts over the rest of the track finally injects some energy into an album that’s solid but now and then just needs a shot of angry lyrics or instrumentation to liven the album up – something that came in bucketloads on Up The Bracket.
It wouldn’t be a Libertines album without some missteps. ‘Belly of the Beast’, ‘Iceman’ and ‘Fame And Fortune’ are either stuck in nostalgic lyrics or nothing really happens for three minutes. ‘Fame And Fortune’ stands alongside ‘Gunga Din’ for cringe-factor with its odd synth bridge and post-chorus sections and its military-and-London-loving lyrics which don’t exactly ring with the same rose-tinted glory that they did back in the Libertines heyday. The same stands for ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’ with its Wilfred Owen-referencing title and mentions of ‘Cromwell’ and ‘Orwell’. For a band that seemed so effortlessly cool in 2002 now it’s just sad considering all that the band have been through. The best moments come in self-reflection, usually on Doherty’s part, when on ‘The Heart Of The Matter’ he sings ‘ Let’s get straight to the heart of the matter / so glum, it’s all on a platter’. You get the sense that Doherty regrets the decisions he made at the end of the Libertines first run and Anthems For Doomed Youth is his attempt to repair the mistakes both he and Barat made and put into a song what he couldn’t say in interviews, reunion announcements and side-projects.
This album could have been a whole lot worse. In an age of disappointing reunions this year has already had both Blur and Sleater Kinney return with solid-to-pretty-damn-good albums. The Libertines have not made a bad album in Anthems For Doomed Youth, but even in their prime they couldn’t release albums to live up to their attitude or live shows. Even if this album wasn’t so good, it would finally bring to a close the saga of the Libertines, maddeningly left open-ended back in 2005 and the 2010 reunion shows. If this record is anything to go by, they could easily do another one. Their appeal hasn’t gone away, the pop producer didn’t sand them down into an alternative band on a silver platter for radio, their lyrics are still as sharp as ever. Even after not being together for ten years, that’s testament to a good band.
Funnel Recommends: The Heart of the Matter / Glasgow Coma Scale Blues / You’re My Waterloo