The Libertines ‘Anthems for Doomed Youth’ – Review

22 Sep

‘If you’ve lost you’re faith in love and music, the end won’t be long.’ Those were the immortal words from ‘The Good Old Days’, less a song and more a manifesto for a generation of romantics. The song talked of an idealistic ‘Albion’ and discouraged living in nostalgic yesterdays. ‘There were no good old days, these are the good old days’, rang loud and true and clear. But how to reconcile that instruction with ‘Anthems for Doomed Youth’, a reunion album necessarily steeped in history and mythology that borrows its title from a poem written a hundred years ago?

At times, Doherty and Barat’s fall-outs, spats and extra-curricular work have been enough to make you lose faith in both love and music. Initial promise (Dirty Pretty things arresting debut still stands up, as does the scrappy and endearing ‘Down in Albion’ by Babyshambles) was never lived up to. Babyshambles last record ‘Sequal to the Prequal’ was, for longtime supporter’s of Doherty, a massive disappointment, and the less said about Barat’s solo work the better. To many The Libertines were held up as a missed opportunity, a ‘what could have been.’

Which is why comeback single ‘Gunga Din’ was a pleasant surprise. It didn’t sound nostalgic or cynical at all. The nice, lilting verse with knowing lyrics, the reggae tinged strut to the guitars, the rowdy sing-along chorus and that chaotic climax. It’s a good song – a little more polished than The Libertines of old (all smoothed over edges and reverb kissed vocals) and the poetry is clunky at points, but all things considered, ‘Gunga Din’ is the best single to come out of either Doherty or Barat’s camp in at least 7 years.

It turns out the album isn’t a nostalgic cash cow either, but rather a living, breathing, passionate ode to enduring friendships and overcoming hard times. On the surface, songs like ‘The Milkman’s Horse’ and ‘Fame and Fortune’ reminisce about ‘the good old days’ but it doesn’t take much digging for the cynicism and disappointment to become apparent. The Camden described on ‘Fame and Fortune’ is a place where people are taken advantage of, where innocence is stolen and dreams are savaged. ‘Barbarians’ is partially about wanting to ‘scream out loud and have it off with a mental crowd’ but behind that desire for good times is the sense that ‘the world is fucked’. It’s an album that focuses on the strains put on friendship, the sadness that comes with experience and the struggles involved in staying sober and happy. But none of these things drag our heroes beyond the possibility of redemption and salvation. ‘It’s a glory hallelujah day’ is a key lyric, and that speaks to a sense of optimism that resounds at key points on the record. The album may dwell on yesterday but never at the expense of today, and there is always an eye towards a better future.

The Libertine aren’t content to rest on their laurels. The controversial decision to hire Ed Sheeran producer Jake Gosling as producer initially seemed strange but it speaks to the band desire to progress and stay relevant. Gosling brings out their lurking pop instinct and does a nice job of highlighting hooks and catchy melodies. If Gary’s drums seem tame and the guitars lack a bit of ferocity (even on the supposed ‘Fury of Chonburi’) then that is surely a price worth paying for an album full of memorable pop moments? Listen to the threadbare demos hiding on the Internet and you’ll appreciate how Gosling has worked some magic here. With its clean pop-rock sound, strong melodies and ambitious arrangements, the album more closely resembles Babyshambles excellent ‘Shotter’s nation’ than any other libertines record – no bad thing as far as I’m concerned.

But there are some blasts from the past here. The aforementioned ‘Fury of Chonburi’ Comes closest to capturing the ramshackle spirit of The Libertines self titled album and the glorious ‘Heart of the Matter’ rattles along at a bruising pace, with some classic, on the nose lyricism from Doherty (‘no one can hold a light to your misery / you’re the number one being hard done by’). ‘You’re My Waterloo’ is the album’s centrepiece and it’s the oldest song on here, dating back to the band’crooning days, pre ‘up the bracket’. Doherty’s abandoned the melodramatic, cockney affectations and acoustic guitar, replaced by a more tragic, world-weary vocal and haunting piano riff. ‘Anthems for Doomed Youth’ finds a decent balance between good old fashioned rockers and these more measured, melancholic ballads.

The Libertines always had a more varied oeuvre than they were ever given credit for. Listen to ‘Up the Bracket’ and you’ll hear sea shanties performed in punk rock fashion, music hall via indie and do wop backing vocals over pub rock. They continue to in incorporate different styles here, drawing together a gospel choir on ‘Belly of the Beast’, girl group harmonies on ‘Glasgow Coma Blues’, 60s pastoral psych on ‘Fame and Fortune’ and cinematic balladry On ‘Dead For Love’. It’s an ambitious and wide reaching musical drama that always sounds like The Libertines, just not entirely as we are used to them.

Pete and Carl have been in and out of the papers for a decade now and their relationship (purely platonic but akin to a great romance nonetheless) has always provided source material for their lyrics, although never quite as explicitly as it does here. One song has Barat urging Doherty ‘to toe the line’ while another has Doherty bluntly stating ‘it makes no odds that you care, anymore’. The buzzing ‘Glasgow Coma Blues’ is the most obviously autobiographical song of the lot; they exchange shots at each other, one line at a time, before lamenting the loss of innocence in the chorus. ‘What happened to the joy in the hearts of the boys?’ – a variation on the question posed over a decade ago on ‘What Became of the likely lads.’

All these years on and there are no clear answers or resolutions for poor Pete and Carl. Recent tabloid drama (cancelled gigs and suggestions of a relapse for Pete) reaffirms that old habits are hard to kick. But the sheer brilliance of songs like ‘Glasgow Coma Blues’ demonstrates the magnetic, charismatic connection between the two songwriters that elevates their bickering above the tabloid soap opera it is sometimes dismissed as. I don’t think anyone will be hailing these songs as classics in the same league as ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ or ‘Time for Heroes’ but at a time when even the bigger groups of the 2002-5 indie boom have fallen by the wayside or split (The Coral, BRMC, The Strokes, The Thrills Franz Ferdinand, White Stripes etc), The Libertines resurgence and enduring popularity is surprising and reassuring. Ten years ago their split marked a cynical end to an era – I don’t think anyone would have predicted that in 2015 they would be the last gang in town. Frantic guitar music, romance and real friendships will never die. The Albion sails on course.

8/10

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