Album Review : Peter Doherty
Facts about this album:
* ‘Grace/Wastelands’ was produced by Stephen Street.
* Former One Dove singer Dot Allison performs backing vocals on ‘Sheepskin Tearaway’.
* P’Grace/Wastelands’ is Peter Doherty’s debut solo album.
It’s odd that Pete ‘Peter’ Doherty keeps going round telling people his solo album is a “snapshot” of a moment in time. More than anything it marks a decade in his life. The vintage of much of ‘Grace/Wastelands’ is Libertines-era: ‘Last Of The English Roses’, ‘Palace Of Bone’, ‘A Little Death Around The Eyes’, ‘Arcadie’, ‘Sheepskin Tearaway’, ‘I Am The Rain’: all can be authoritatively traced back to 2004, though most lived earlier. Partly, this is because, as he points out, these songs just didn’t fit elsewhere. Partly it’s because, while he’s long had a reputation as prolific, it now looks more like a reputation for having been prolific. The endless ‘Acousticalullaby’/‘The Freewheelin’ Pete Doherty’/‘The Madcap Laughs’-like bootlegs that emerged in The Fucked Up Years (2003-2006) are still arrayed in gigabytes of torrents and .zips on the web. They haven’t been added to much since.
Pete(r) was right on another count – this is one for the fans. In fact, it’s exactly the album they’ve always wanted him to make. These are the types of strummykins numbers he specialises in, previously only enjoyed in damp corners of the internet, with Dictaphone crackle intact, occasionally enlivened by the sound of him stopping to turn the pages of his diary. By God they’re louche, stuffed with jazz chords and lyrics, less interested in tunes than in poetry with guitar attached. Even in Babyshambles, Adam Ficek was always stood behind to lock him into 4/4 – now, he’s free to indulge his romantic whimsy. Those who fell for ‘Radio America’’s mumbles about how “the red-faced President took afternoon tea with Her Majesty The Queen” are primed. Those who could never forgive him his self-indulgences will struggle with the most Pete-ish album ever. All his rose-tinted Anglophilia stands on exhibit, often straddling the line where mining your own literary oeuvre lapses toward self-parody. Opening with a song called ‘Arcadie’ is probably just arming your enemies, no matter how charmingly done. ‘Last Of The English Roses’ may read like a Daily Mail headline, but the only lapse into Blighty-bollocks is ‘Sweet By And By’, coming off like Chris De Burgh’s pinnacle of naffness ‘Patricia The Stripper’.
A close touchstone is in fact Damon Albarn’s The Good, The Bad & The Queen – somewhat ironic given Graham Coxon’s supporting role. The Blur guitarist’s contribution turns out to be very self-effacing, but Stephen Street, the producer responsible for more evocation of Mythical England than any other, has done a fine job of bejewelling his end – conjuring a record of echoing footfalls, dubby bass and cinematic orchestrations. But where Albarn had his ‘Kingdom Of Doom’, ravens flying the Tower as the dole queue subsided, the heart of this album is ‘1939 Returning’ – waking up in 2009 staring at the TV guide after daydreams of doodlebugs and dusty urchins – sewn into an early trilogy alongside ‘Salome’ and ‘A Little Death Around The Eyes’.
Having worked the Albionics to their logical conclusion, Pete(r) gets by with a little help from his friends. ‘Palace Of Bone’ – once familiar as ‘Snakey Road’ from the ‘Acousticalullaby’ sessions – grinds through its Nick Cave gothisms like a cart across a road of skulls, Wolfman growling a duet every bit as nefarious as the reputation that precedes him. Occasional muse Dot Allison has a co-writing credit on ‘Sheepskin Tearaway’, which you could justifiably dub ‘B-side material’. Pete also polishes up an idea by The Bandits’ John Robinson, ‘I Am The Rain’, and sails it along with langour, propelled by its elemental folk-poetry lines like “my rival the sun who ripens the plum”.
His own ‘New Love Grows On Trees’ is a pristine snarl, but it’s up to the Wolfman to supplement ‘For Lovers’ by writing Pete(r) another finest hour. Wolfie’s original version of ‘Broken Love Story’ was too creaking and haphazard to live. Here, it resembles ‘The Masterplan’ in the verses, with a more ragged glory in the chorus.
No doubt the trilby army will argue other lost nuggets ought to have been excavated – ‘Hooligans On E’? ‘Lust Of The Libertines’? ‘At The Flophouse’? – but the more thoughtful will wonder whether the embellishments actually improve the demos. Perhaps part of the joy in their rough recordings was hearing the cracked linoleum of shit flats, their intimacy allowing fans to claim to ‘know’ Pete in a way that transcends mere fandom.
A contractually obliged rummage through The Poet’s bottom-drawers, ‘Grace…’ is less a masterpiece than an escape, a memento of his charisma and charm more than a leap towards new horizons. But is it so remarkable that, as the last act of the decade he bestrode so messily, Peter chose to do some housekeeping?