So here we are then – the first Libertines album in over a decade, and the album most fans never thought they would see released. Not much pressure then, lads…
Funded by major label Virgin EMI, recorded by One Direction and Ed Sheeran producer Jake Gosling and made at the aptly named Karma Studios in Thailand, ‘Anthems For Doomed Youth’ is, on paper at least, poles apart from the band’s first two records. But do the tunes live up to expectations? That’s the key question. NME’s definitive review of the album will follow closer to the album’s September 4 release date. Until then, here’s my track-by-track rundown of what the record sounds like on first-listen, peppered with everything we know about each of the tracks so far.
A touch of light distortion kicks us off, alongside maracas, tambourine and a loping, slow strut of a bass line from John Hassall. It’s a subtle start, rather than piercing. Although the bones of this track have been doing the rounds since 2008, when Peter Doherty had Babyshambles regularly playing it under the title ‘Natives At The Gates Of Rome’, here it’s got a brand new chorus that will please the die-hard fans. It’s the best bit in the song. Others in our office have said it reminds them of ‘That’s Entertainment’ by The Jam, but for me the backing vocals and bright, major chords are closer to ‘Just Who Is The 5 O’Clock Hero?’ by the same band. Lyrically it’s a straight up Pete’n’Carl split, verse for verse, with all four members joining in on the shouty chorus. Carl’s bits seem to be about playing huge gigs (“And now they’re coming out in droves / Out of the burrows to the shows”), while Pete’s singing about prison (“Collect your food in 4/4 time”). The key lyric? It’s gotta be the chorus: “All I want is to scream out loud / And have it up with the mental crowd / ‘Cos I believe, somehow / The world’s fucked but it won’t get me down”.
The lead single, which you’ll have already heard by now. You can see why it was picked to go first – it’s got the most instant-sounding chorus on the whole record, and it’s also one of the most trad-Libertines sounding songs they’ve ever written. Had they instead gone with ‘You’re My Waterloo’ or ‘The Milkman’s Horse’ – two of AFDY’s other standouts – and it might have thrown people too much. Elsewhere, Carl’s line “I’ve got those Monday blues straight from Sunday booze” is a nod to a line in Billie Holiday’s ‘Good Morning Heartache’, which Pete enthused about for The Guardian a few years ago.
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‘Fame And Fortune’
This’ll be the one that splits opinion the most. If you’re someone who’s fond of scepticism about bands reuniting, about The Libertines’ unrelenting lionisation of Chas & Dave or “junkie rockers” in general, it’s probably not for you. For everyone else, it’ll recall the kind of theatrical absurdity that made The Small Faces such a weird, important band in the ’60s. Clearly influenced by Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, it’s as “cock-er-ney/how’s yer father?” as they’ve ever sounded. Even back in 2002/2004 there was a sense they didn’t ever quite go 100% down this road, but here, they have. It seems like the band are in on the joke too, importantly, because lyrically it’s ALL about them and their time coming of age in the capital. So, we get tales of being lured to legendary ’00s indie clubs (“Down to Trash and Lordy Lord,” Pete and Carl sing), signing their 2001 record deal (“The deal was done/ the trade was rough”) as well as the story they recounted in their first ever NME interview about the girl who used to chase them around with scissors when they lived together in a flat above then-staffers Steven Wells and Roger Sargent (“There’s a slasher in a Holloway boulevard / Screaming monkey, monkey, monkey”).
The chorus, meanwhile, sees Pete and Carl comparing themselves to “Tin soldiers responding to a call / To Camden we will crawl / One and all”. It’s banal, but then again, banal circus songs are littered throughout British pop history, from ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite’ to the middle bit in ‘To The End’ by Blur. This song aims to walk that tightrope alongside them.
‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’
One that’s been played live a few times now, with Carl taking charge in full-on Dorian Gray mode. “In the pub that night, racking out the lines of shite,” he sings – vocals low and conversational. Pete’s already told Radio 1 that the line: “They wished you luck and handed you a gun” is about “the day we got signed [to Rough Trade]”, and the entire song again seems to be about the band’s formation. At one point, there’s a sly bit of method acting that takes us from the start until present day, with Carl singing, “Yes we thought that they were brothers / Then they half murdered each other / Then they did a karaoke turn / And murdered our best song”. Despite Carl singing the majority on the record, live Pete’s been singing half of it. Melody-wise, it’s a meandering, sweet set of chords that feels close to Dirty Pretty Things when they let their hair down (‘One To My Left’).
‘Heart Of The Matter’
Pete’s chorus to this has been knocking around for a few years, but it’s given a proper backing here. “With all the battering it’s taken / I’m surprised that it’s still ticking,” he sings in a reggae-tinged accent while the rest of the band play fast behind him. The choruses are charged, with John’s bass sounding like it could have crept off an early Strokes record and Carl’s lead guitar line not a million miles away from ‘Last Post On The Bugle’. Lyrically we’ve got Pete taking pot shots at someone (“No one can hold a light to your misery” and “You’ll get by with your smile, your wicked smile” are the two most cutting lines), while Carl’s reply is forthcoming (“I get by, I get by / Just this crocked little smile”). So are they singing about each other then? And whose heart is really the most battered? Guess you’ll have to ask them about that…
‘Belly Of The Beast’
As far as I can tell, here are the only synths on the album – despite some reports previously talking up their addition as if the band had taken a leaf out of Tame Impala’s book. There’s also a motorbike, revving (‘played’ by Carl apparently). Both are subtle additions to the palette though, so don’t throw your red tunic away in disgust just yet. A natural cousin to ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ – they really should start mashing the two songs up live – the bare bones of ‘Belly Of The Beast’ are as close as The Libs on ‘Anthems…’ get to anything on the first two albums. The clever, rolling lyrics recall Morrissey at his Smithsiest and reference old Pete internet demos (2004’s Acousticalullaby gets a shoutout). Both Pete and Carl almost rap their delivery. At one point it even sounds like ‘Christmas Wrapping’ by The Waitresses (a good thing), weirdly. A 50/50 Carl’n’Pete split, the former sounds angrier than ever on his bits. The best lyric comes from him too: “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 mother-fucker I know”. Got that?
Waves lapping at the sand and an acoustic guitar start this track. That riff they’re playing? It’s taken from a song Pete wrote with former squeeze Dot Allison in 2004 called ‘I Wanna Break Your Heart’ (later released by Allison as a single in 2009). The rest of the song’s different though – it’s a story about a couple new to London: “A suedehead and his pipe” who walks around White City, according to Pete, and is on his way to meet a girl – “the rummest sort Stockwell had ever seen” – according to Carl. Maybe it’s the same girl they’re singing about on ‘France’ (also from Stockwell). Old references to Albion and London pepper the chorus (“I spend my nights wandering the wards”), while a breakdown halfway through gives way to a jazzy, Django Reinhardt-inspired guitar solo. Oh, it’s largely acoustic too.
‘You’re My Waterloo’
This is the one old song The Libs recorded on AFDY. A journalist from another magazine recently said to me that he thought bits of the album sound like Coldplay, and I can only presume he was talking about this song, thanks to its piano opening. The irony being – The Libs first recorded ‘You’re My Waterloo’ (piano line included) in 1999, a full year before Chris Martin and co released their debut album. Anyway, it’s an absolute corker of a recording here. By far and away the best thing on the album, and the prettiest song Pete’s been anywhere near since ‘For Lovers’ back in 2004. His vocals are impeccable – stupidly good – which isn’t something you’ve been able to say about him that often over the past decade. When he wants to be, he can be up there with the very best…
‘Fury Of Chonburi’
One of the punkiest things on the record, and rightly so – Chonburi is home to Pattaya, Thailand’s most notorious vice den. It’s also home to thousands of lady boys, and where The Libs stumbled around in the video for ‘Gunga Din’. And it’s where Pete and Carl would nip off to every now and then while making the album. This track sees the two frontmen trading lines like it’s 2004 and referring to each other as Pig Man (both of them are called that – it’s been their joint pet name for years). It’s more obviously personal than much of the album’s other lyrics too, many which are written in the duo’s own vernacular. From Carl here, we get lines like, “And I do wish him well / I got him under my spell / I think he’ll do just fine / If he can toe the line”, while Pete sings of someone “lowering the tone and bringing out the bone”. Like all The Libertines’ best lyrics, from ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ to ‘What A Waster’, when you really analyse it you’re never quite sure who the subject of the lyrics really is (Is it Pete? Or Carl? Or neither?).
They split the two choruses too, which reference Naga (a mythical serpent-like creature in Thai folklore), the Sukhumvit (a Bangkok district popular with tourists) and – much closer to home – the Crown Prosecution Service.
‘The Milkman’s Horse’
Probably the track that best sums up the 2015 incarnation of The Libertines. Slower-paced than their earlier material and built around a lilting melody that’s faintly reminiscent of ‘Creep’ by Radiohead, it’s got the best chorus on the record by a country mile and a feel that’s similar to the Manics and Suede in the late ’90s. By that, I mean it’s probably the most ‘comfortable’ the Libs have ever sounded. Lyrically, it’s wrapped up in despair though – there’s a great line from Pete about “battles fought at sea”, and how “it must be lonely being you being me”. He seemingly wrote the bones of the song a few months ago, as the video demo from his YouTube account below shows – although the chorus, which back then was too close to The Supremes’ ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’ for Carl to handle takes it somewhere else entirely on the record (“[Carl] came up with another ‘less Supremes’ but equally supreme refrain,” as Pete explained in the YouTube info box). An anthem and a high-point of the album.
‘Glasgow Coma Scale Blues’
There’s a neat-little nod to ‘Boys In The Band’ on this rocker, with the line “the only thing that kept us apart was your cold, unloving heart” being sung to exactly the same melody as “all I’ve ever seen you do is run” from the band’s 2002 single. Chord-wise, it’s eerily similar to ‘The Boy Looked At Johnny’ from the same era too – but that’s not to say it sounds lazy. The Libs, and Pete in particular, have been songwriting magpies since the very start, pilfering the odd line/riff/chord change from everybody from Velvet Underground to Perry Como and even the Rainbow theme tune. So here in 2015, why not rip off yourselves? Lyrically, it’s another track steeped in the past, referencing what went wrong with The Libs the first, and second times around. There’s a great middle-eight, full of descending chords and Pete shouting gibberish while Carl gives it some Stones-inspired ooh-la-la-las.
‘Dead For Love’
The only track to make it past the five-minute mark. ‘Dead For Love’ starts with a bit of film noir piano and a cinema reel flickering. Melody-wise, it’s got a similar vibe to Pete’s 2009 solo single ‘Last Of The English Roses’ in the (Pete-sung) verses, while the choruses (Carl) are more pensive. Full-band backing vocals give us a new angle to the Libs as a four-piece vocally, while lyrically it’s about a murder mystery – Play For Today stylee – and there’s even a touch of Mike Leigh or Walter Greenwood about its bluntness (two well-favoured Libs writers). “The only rule is stay alive / Just keep breathing, you’ll be fine,” is Pete’s opening couplet, and from there we get colder until Carl screams the middle eight raw (“And in the shadows you will not talk / And there you’ll stay until you fall”). Things fade out after two final choruses and we’re left with the cinema reel and old piano again, except this time Carl and Pete are quoting (or is it misquoting?) Russian poetry on different audio channels. Pete’s on the left, reading ‘From The First Notebook [Fragment]’ by Anna Akhmatova, while Carl’s on the right reciting ‘Insomnia’ by Marina Tsvetaeva. The final bit we hear from them? Pete’s cackling while Carl speaks Marina: “Night has set ablaze the most radiant countenance / And dark night renders / But one part of us dark”. A dramatic end, all being said.
‘Anthems For Doomed Youth’ easily sounds like the most rounded album The Libertines have ever made, something that’s probably due to the personnel involved. Even though they weren’t present for the initial writing sessions, Gary Powell and John Hassall are all over this record. Banished to the back during much of The Libs’ Rough Trade tenure, the rhythm section are equal partners these days, and alongside the fact all four Libertines aren’t yung punx in their early 20s anymore, it’s their added presence that helps to broaden the band’s sound. That’s the thing I get most from ‘Anthems For Doomed Youth’ – it’s The Libertines in their mid-30s. They’re not pretending to be 21 one bit.
Producer Jake Gosling has clearly put in the effort too, because while parts of the album do sound ramshackle, overall it’s closer to the pristine-sounding efforts of latter-day Babyshambles and Pete-solo producer Stephen Street than the ‘anything goes’ mentality of producer/vibesman Mick Jones, who helmed their first two records. You can notice how much thought has gone into the sound straight away on opening song ‘Barbarians’, which must have five or six different guitar tracks bubbling away underneath the vocals, including a neat bit of vibrato that – ironically – gives the song a Clash-like (circa Sandinista!) feel. Location-wise, we’re firmly routed in two scenes throughout: the London of The Libertines’ youth and young manhood, and the Thailand of now, 2015. Both are weird, fucked up places punctuated by the odd beatific moment. And in that sense, it’s pretty much exactly the world The Libertines have always sought to exist in…