By Eleni P. Austin
“This one’s for your heart and mind, the melody’s in 4/4 time, you get it right and it rings true/All I want to do is scream out loud, and have it up with a mental crowd/’Cause I believe somehow the world’s fucked, but it won’t let me down.”
That’s the opening salvo from the Libertines’ new record, Anthems For Doomed Youth. Yes, you read that correctly. The Libertines, infamous for being one of the most talented and most toxic bands of the 21st century, have reunited, following a decade of acrimony. They even managed to record a new album. Surprisingly, hell didn’t freeze over.
Back in 1997, Carl Barat and Pete Doherty met while both were studying at separate universities in London. Carl shared a flat with Pete’s older sister, Amy-Jo. The pair bonded over shared influences, the Jam, the Clash, Sex Pistols, the Velvet Underground, the Doors and Django Reinhardt.
They formed the Libertines, named after the Marquis de Sade’s “Lust Of The Libertines.” Recruiting bass player John Hassell and drummer Gary Powell, Doherty and Barat split singing, guitar and songwriting duties between them.
In the years that led up to the new millennium, they gigged where they could, sometimes in their shared flat, sometimes at Filthy McNasty’s Whisky Café, where Pete tended bar. Their reputation as a live act grew along with their catalog of sharp original songs. They quickly acquired a manager and a publishing deal.
Meanwhile in the U.S., the similarly stripped-down Garage sounds from bands like the Strokes and the White Stripes were garnering critical and commercial success. Record labels in the U.K. took notice and the Libertines signed with Rough Trade Records.
Their debut, Up The Bracket, arrived in 2002, produced by Clash guitarist (and Punk Rock elder statesman), Mick Jones. A brilliant synthesis of Punk rebellion, erudite lyrics and powerful, hook-laden melodies, it received rave reviews and climbed the charts in Great Britain. The Libertines served as an opening act for everyone from the Sex Pistols to Morrissey. They even gained a toe-hold on the U.S. charts.
Unfortunately, Pete Doherty had already begun experimenting with drugs. Following their first major tour, he became hooked on heroin and crack cocaine. Recording sessions in New York were marred by intra-band tensions. Carl Barat junked the recordings, but they wound up being released for free on the internet.
Back in the U.K., Doherty spiraled further out of control, missing gigs and recording sessions. He was caught burglarizing Barat’s flat and later arrested with a switchblade. He was sentenced to six months in prison and was released after two months.
Carl Barat was waiting at the prison gates when Pete Doherty got out. The band played a triumphant show that night, but Doherty’s habits only escalated, making his behavior more erratic. He missed enough shows that the band had to replace him on tour.
Mick Jones returned to produce the band’s second album, band relations were so strained that security was hired to keep Doherty and Barat from fighting. Somehow, Jones managed to snatch brilliance from the jaws of chaos. Their self-titled sophomore effort was released in August, 2004.
It was even better than Up The Bracket, debuting at #1 on the British charts. Doherty had checked in to the same rehab center twice, but failed to complete his treatment. After he promised to go to a facility in Thailand, the band performed a short set that night. It would be years before they shared a stage again.
In the ensuing years Carl Barat started a new band, Dirty Pretty Things, releasing two albums with them as well as a solo album. Despite his addictions and ongoing skirmishes with the law, Doherty managed to form a band, Babyshambles, who released three albums. He also carried on a tempestuous relationship with Supermodel Kate Moss.
The Libertines reunited briefly in 2010 to play two sets at the Reading and Leeds Festivals. Unfortunately, Doherty continued to battle his addictions.
Four years later the band played a series of surprisingly successful gigs around England and by January 2015, Pete Doherty had actually completed rehab in Thailand. Barat, Hassell and Powell joined him in a studio there, close to his treatment center and recorded their third full-length, Anthems For Doomed Youth.
Opening with a sustained note of feedback, the band comes out guns blazing with “Barbarians.” This track has everything: coiled bass lines, a pummeling back-beat, tambourine shake, jangly acoustic guitar and Beatlesque choruses. It’s an anthemic musical manifesto that serves as a brilliant intro to the record.
Several songs deal head on with the perils of addiction, fame and the road to recovery. The first single, “Gunga Din,” wraps a taut, Reggae riddim around a remarkably candid confession. “Woke up again to my chagrin, getting sick and tired of feeling sick and tired again, I tried 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, and a drink to ease the panic and the suffering.” Doherty even quotes another talented junkie, Billie Holiday, noting “I got those Monday blues, straight from Sunday booze.”
“Fame And Fortune” is anchored by a see-saw rhythm and rippling guitar riffs that recalls a ghostly Clash track called “Rebel Waltz.” They offer some hard won advice; “If you’re seeking fame and fortune walking the streets of London, looking for the crossroads everywhere/Hold onto your dreams, however bleak it seems, the world may not listen, but the devil may care.”
A martial cadence and rumbling bass fuels “Belly Of The Beast.” With Rockabilly guitar riffs, ironic handclaps and labyrinthine wordplay, the track comes across like the bastard child of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and the Monkees’ proto-Punk classic, “(I’m Not Your)” Steppin’ Stone.”
But beneath the swagger and bluster, the lyrics detail Doherty’s harrowing mis-adventures. “Back in London’s grey-scotch mist, staring at my therapist/He says pound for pound, blow for blow, you’re the most messed-up motherfucker I know/It was a 12 step bus fare knock-down day care day.”
Finally, lapping waves open “Iceman,” (it was recorded by an ocean in Thailand). A soft sea shanty accented by sweet acoustic arpeggios and salty harmonies, the lyrics weave a tale of a young couple trapped in the grip of addiction.
Every song here is a winner, but the stand-out tracks are “Fury Of Choburi” and “Glasgow Coma Scale Blues.” The fractious melody of the former is wed to a stop-start rhythm and roiling bass lines. Doherty spits out snarly Punk-tastic verses over splintery guitar chords. The lyrics re-affirm Johnny Lydon’s legendary observation that “anger is an energy.”
On the latter, spiky guitar riffs collide with chords that sound like air raid sirens. The melody is slightly shambolic, Doherty’s vocal delivery is woozy, and the lyrics are a mish-mash. In short, it’s Punk Rock perfection
The action slows on two tracks. The piano-driven ballad, “You’re My Waterloo” actually dates back to the earliest incarnation of the band. The lyrics attempt a romantic rapprochement by referencing Judy Garland and legendary British comedian Tony Hancock, (a life-long hero of Doherty). Ultimately he insists “You’re my waterloo, I’ll be your cavalry/Well I’m so glad we know what to do, and everyone’s gonna be happy.” If you say so, Pete!
The title track is strummy, contemplative and slightly erudite; A pocket history of Doherty and Barat’s up-and-down relationship that touches briefly on Doherty’s ongoing obsession with “Albion,” (the ancient Greek name for Great Britain).
Other interesting tracks include the frenetic “Heart Of The Matter” and “The Milkman’s Horse,” a glorious homage to Doherty’s fertile imagination. The album closes with the ornate and cinematic “Dead For Love.” A spectral Film Noir that splits the difference between Pink Floyd grandiosity and a bleary English Music Hall motif; an ambitious end to a wild ride.
Please, pony up the extra dough for the expanded edition of Anthem For Doomed Youth. It adds four bonus tracks, each one more glorious than the last. “Love On The Dole” is a dose of laddish, Glam-tastic swagger that fuses a shang-a-lang guitar hook to a chunky back-beat. The results are impossibly catchy.
“Bucket Shop” is propelled by guitars that spike and swirl and it closes with a pithy guitar outro that archly quotes Led Zep’s “Stairway To Heaven. “Lust Of The Libertines” opens with goofy studio chatter and segues into a Punky Reggae party with Velvet Underground overtones. Finally, on “Seven Deadly Sins,” sugar rush acoustic notes play accent a lazy soft-shoe.
The Libertines paved the way for bands like Arctic Monkeys, the Strypes and Palma Violets, now it’s their turn reclaim the spotlight. Anthems For The Doomed is remarkably protean album. Hopefully it marks the beginning of a real Libertines renaissance.