“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. “It’s staggering that we’ve got to the point where we’ve actually got an imminent release for the fucking Libertines,” echoed Barat. The lyrics about being messed up, though, don’t ring half as strongly as the quotes about their unlikely existence.
In the early ’00s, The Libertines were one of the biggest bands in the world. Many considered them to be the UK equivalent of The Strokes. As the well-documented story goes, they released two critically and commercially acclaimed albums (both produced by Mick Jones of The Clash, no less) before in-fighting and drug addiction (each to varying degrees, depending on who you ask) led to the quartet flaming out. For many, The Libertines became tabloid fodder. The songs faded, and the stories of crack, cocaine, and heroin remained. Releasing a new album 11 years after their dissolution, The Libertines were essentially required to address their volatile past in music. While it references that combustibility, Anthems infrequently sounds combustible itself.
Even before you listen to the album, a quick look at the liner notes will let you know that The Libertines aren’t about to watch the house burn down. Rather than having a member of The Clash behind the boards, the band tapped Jake Gosling to produce. Prior to Anthems, Gosling had produced One Direction, co-written Ed Sheeran’s “Lego House”, and remixed Lady Gaga and Keane under the name Sketch Iz Dead. That’s not to say that Gosling’s pop history makes him an ill fit; Barat and Doherty laud the producer’s willingness to experiment with them in their NME interview. It just feels like a guarded choice, the kind of person that will make them sound professional and update their sound to what audiences expect today, rather than someone who will dig at and expose the wounds.
Lead single “Gunga Din” comes close to that rawness, though in a hungover, lolling way. The song borrows lyrics (Doherty credits opening line “woke up again to my chagrin” to Peter Wolf, while the bridge comes from Billie Holliday, of all people), makes literary reference to regret and shame, and alternates a slow-burn, Clash-ska verse with an inspiring sing-along chorus. It’s a crowded track, full of sidelong apologies; “if you stay strong, you’re a better man than I” is a way to admit messing up, and when things start to feel too chummy and happy on the outro, a voice chastises, reminding of the seriousness of the matters at hand: “Oh, what are you doing, you stupid fucking idiot? Wake up!”
Much of the album rides that line between the pain of the past and the pleasure of having gotten through it. Consequently, it frequently lacks catharsis and powerful moments. Rather than dip into the depths or climb to the heights, Anthems sits in a gray middle. “Hold onto your dreams, however bleak it seems/ The world it may not listen but the devil may care,” they smirk on “Fame and Fortune”, a track that obliquely compares the band’s history to a soldier’s march for glory and features a revving scooter engine. The jaunty marching rhythm is pleasant enough, but there’s not much to learn from the tin soldiers or that purring engine. Closer “Dead for Love” opens on the sound of a film reel unspooling and haunted house piano, and the arch drama bleeds into equally simplistic signifiers of tension. Talk of the “only lovers left alive” and “lecher’s souls and gangster’s molls” doesn’t feel very personal; they’re the sort of things you’d find in notebooks wedged into the backpack of an angsty youth with literary aspirations. Maybe that’s the sort Barat and Doherty were 10 or 15 years ago, but they’ve been through so much in the interim that now, it doesn’t feel like enough.
That said, those cliches are delivered with some fire. Gary Powell’s drum fills, the expressive guitars, and the oh-woah sing-alongs on “Barbarians” are a lot of fun. The blistered “Heart of the Matter” gets into some confessions but also wears the band’s knowledge of their own charms on its sleeve (“I get by, I get by/ With just this crooked little smile”). There’s enough fun here to justify Anthems’ existence, which really is a lot to say for an album that for so long seemed like it would never exist. If it acts as a one-off return for fans, it’s an amiable, if un-revelatory set. If it’s the start of a return, the first shovelful that The Libertines dig out for a new foundation, even better.
Essential Tracks: “Barbarians”, “Gunga Din”, and “Heart of the Matter”