So this is it. This is what happens when wishes are granted. For fans of The Libertines, the release of a third album, Anthems For Doomed Youth, on September 11th seems like the impossible dream come true. More than eleven years after their second and seemingly final LP, and a whimper of a last live gig under the Libertine name in the form of a support slot at an unremarkable Paris venue, here we are again. It was an underwhelming conclusion to what had been an intensive and iconic chapter in the history of British rock.
So much had happened and all so quickly: the alchemic chemistry between co-front men Carl Barât and Pete Doherty; the poetic ideology; the romantic vision; the too-good-to-be-true interviews; the NME’s die-hard dedication to documenting every high and low; the near-misses; 112a Teesdale Street; the guerrilla gigs; the homoerotic tension; the matching tattoos; the betrayal; the reconciliation. And on top of all this, timeless songs that possessed energy so raw, so honest, and acted as totem examples of rock ‘n’ roll’s non-discriminatory policy of not having to technically be the best to actually be the best.
Yet the glory and triumphs were matched only by the depravity and disappointments. So acute was the fallout from the end of The Libertines and their Arcadian dream that the resultant resentment made the notion of the band ever getting back together, let alone touring and recording new music, too much to hope for.
“It’s either top of the world or bottom of the canal,” is the pledge Carl Barât put to his partner in crime, Pete Doherty. And each of them have experienced them both, the latter with too many court appearances and drug charges to his name to recount, and the former with a play alongside Sadie Frost and an opera with Marc Almond on his post-Libertine CV. But, once again, it’s the lows that make the Libertines’ current high – in the form of a major record deal and extensive touring schedule – all the more extraordinary.
Even after a brief reunion that saw them play one slot below the headliners, Arcade Fire, at Reading and Leeds in 2010, this current Libertine renaissance has been far from a sure thing. Doherty admitted at the time that he agreed to play with his old band because of the generous fee. A documentary, ‘There Are No Innocent Bystanders’, about the lead up to the shows revealed the wounds of their past to still be very much open, if not infected. When Pete failed to attend the film’s premiere, a rightly spurned Carl turned to the NME to vent his latest frustrations and doubts about The Libertines having a future whatsoever.
Barât’s lone solo album followed (Pete’s only solo record was released the year before), as well as his admirably honest autobiography,Threepenny Memoir. Doherty made his acting debut in the critically panned Confession of a Child of the Century, during which time he became romantically involved with his co-star Charlotte Gainsbourg, whom subsequently fled back to France just four days after absconding to the UK with Pete and discovering the full extent of his profligate lifestyle. A third album with the ramshackle Babyshambles came and went in 2013. And so brief was the lifespan of Carl Barât and The Jackals – a band consisting of what one suspects were Libertines fans who couldn’t believe their luck – that they were seemingly dismissed as quickly as they were assembled (so swiftly, in fact, they are still yet to have an entry added to Barât’s Wikipedia page).
And yet, come July 2014 The Libertines were playing to the biggest audience of their career at London’s Hyde Park. The gig itself was atrocious; marred by the constant need to stop the music whilst mass crowd surges were dealt with by inept security, a sense of stressful tension amongst the band and a general feel of dangerous unease in the audience. A few months later, three sold-out nights at Alexandra Palace confirmed they were a band able to deliver under the right circumstances and drew in new fans with no nostalgic attachment but who’d discovered their legend retrospectively.
By October, Pete Doherty had checked into a rehab facility in Thailand and was joined by his band mates during his successful treatment, where they all signed a contract with Virgin EMI and began work on the album that would become Anthems For Doomed Youth.
So what of the new album? “Long-awaited” is an overused phrase, yet it’s both simultaneously apt and understating the fact in this particular case. The marked difference, sonically, is the relative polish of the production finish. Although Anthems’ producer, Jake Gosling, didn’t have to do much to outstrip Mick Jones’ previous method, which seemingly was to put a microphone in the same room as The Libs and let the tape roll. The context from which this new material is emanating is, of course, the variant that really matters. Rather than the squat of well-read, would-be rent boys, or the fraying edges of a competitive creative partnership, Anthems’ is coming from a place of healing, renewed friendship and the temerity of building upon a legacy.
Admirably, The Libertines pull it off. Their lyrical tropes and vocabulary remain intact; it’s all veins, prison gates, the streets of London, death, glory, setting suns, bleeding hearts, boozers, doom and fate. And whilst they still communicate through guitar play that varies between jaunty strums, jolting squalls and absent-minded noodling, the energy behind it all is not the same as that of Up The Bracket orThe Libertines, because, well, it can’t be. Time has passed. Life has changed. Only a fool would expect the intentions behind this album to be the same as its predecessors.
Saying that, there are still chaotic flourishes to be found, most notably during the closing moments of lead single ‘Gunga Din’, the wind-up pace of ‘Heart Of The Matter’, Carl’s spitting vocal delivery on ‘Fury Of Chonburi’ and the ripping chords of ‘Glasgow Coma Scale Blues’. On the other hand, ‘Fame And Fortune’ and the re-recorded ‘You’re My Waterloo’ feel like a hat tip to the band’s patriotic penchant for old British music hall. The album’s title track and centre piece, meanwhile, heavily invokes the emotional tenderness of the likes of ‘What Katie Did’ and ‘Music When The Lights Go Out’. ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’ also contains one of the band’s finest lyrical sign offs that encapsulates their starry-eyed nihilism: “We’re going nowhere/But… nowhere seems to be on our way.”
All in all, The Libertines have done a good job. Confirmation of the worth of this new material was truly evident at Bristol Academy – one of five small club shows the band announced last minute to celebrate the release of the new album – when a voracious crowd were just as joyed to hear ‘Gunga Din’ as they were the beloved songs of old.
Yes, The Libertines have played a hell of a lot of festival shows this year, including a surprise set on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury and three in three days during their Reading and Leeds headline slots over the August bank holiday weekend (they took a jet over to France to sandwich in another for Rock en Seine). And, honestly, their fatigue was evident by the time they reached Berkshire. The setting was far too exposing of their limitations and a thinning crowd didn’t help matters either. The missed guitar solo during ‘Time For Heroes’ and an unmissable eye roll from drummer/conductor Gary Powell summed up the set rather succinctly.
But on stage in Bristol, it was a different story. Hilariously, after 45 minutes’ worth of five (yes, five) roadies taking their sweet time over setting up, and one even dedicating his time to pacing the stage checking for any hidden hazards, Pete Doherty saunters on (clad in elasticated, drawstring jogging bottoms, we hasten to add!), and lightly trips over a guitar cable. Not that he cares or is phased… Thanks, roadies!
A 22 song set of glory ensued. The atmosphere was electric. The boys in the band played furiously. Gary was the backbone around which the chaos could flail. Doherty enthusiastically insisted on making the band play an under-rehearsed and cack-handed rendition of new song ‘Iceman’. The commotion felt closed in and gratifyingly abrasive. ‘What A Waster’, ‘Up The Bracket’ and ‘Don’t Look Back Into The Sun’ make for a riotous encore. It was like the good old days. A true joy to behold. This is the setting in which The Libertines’ unique vigour can truly be absorbed.
So, where do we go from here? Based on pre-orders alone, Anthems For Doomed Youth is probably destined for a high chart position. The Libertines have a few more live dates to fulfil. Their interviews have been living up to their track record for talking frankly and in delightful pull-quotes. Really, this is all just a rather delayed return to service. It will take some doing, but perhaps The Libertines can inspire fans enough to adore them beyond their romanticised past. But, for now, as they sing on ‘The Iceman’, “Just for now, we have all the time.”