For reunited bands, opting to make new albums instead of just milking the enormo-gig cash cow is something of risk – make something that doesn’t match up to your peak years and you risk destroying your legacy, like Guns ‘N Roses or Hole. As such, the news in December 2014 that The Libertines would be making a new record was both exciting and nerve-wracking.
The last time Pete, Carl, John and Gary released an album (2004’s self-titled second), they were still young men caught up in the eye of a very turbulent storm involving drugs, arrests and the band’s subsequent implosion. Eleven years later, all four are fathers and settled down, Pete’s taking his drug counsellor on tour and it’s been three years since a Libertine has been in trouble with the law (Pete was questioned in late 2012 over the theft of French railway uniforms, cutlery and ‘cold meat’). Their first two albums were full of stories of drugs, hedonism, and the grit and grime of London. Now they’re no longer so much a part of those worlds, what could they write about that wouldn’t feel like they were parodying themselves?
‘Anthems For Doomed Youth’, recorded in Karma Sound Studios in Thailand’s Bang Saray (close to where Pete recently completed rehab), is partially about the mental scars left by the events of the last 18 years. Its songs flit between the past and the present, as if trying to exorcise old ghosts (or “fumigate demons”, as ‘You’re My Waterloo’ would have it). On the surface, it may seem as if each Libertine is in a better place now, but there’s still much venting to be done.
The catharsis straddles an array of topics. First up, vices. Reggae-flavoured comeback ‘Gunga Din’ has Pete and Carl swapping verses about personal penchants; Pete’s “got to find a vein”, while Carl’s admitting to having “a little drinky now and then just to help me just to see the light”. The largely acoustic ‘Iceman’ warns about the futility of hanging out with meth dealers (“Don’t spend your days in the haze with the iceman/It means nothing at all”).
Then there’s depression. Carl, who’s spoken openly about his struggles with mental health, makes no bones about things on ‘Belly Of The Beast’. Over a barely noticeable synth part and jaunty guitars, he delivers dark lyrics in almost nursery rhyme rhythm (“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'”). It’s arresting, powerful stuff and probably the rawest, most honest line on the record.
Next, a subject that’s long been at the heart of Libertines songs: Pete and Carl’s relationship. ‘Fury Of Chonburi’ is named after the area that’s home to Pattaya, a Thai vice den Pete and Carl frequented during recording (they also filmed the video for ‘Gunga Din’ there). Fittingly, it’s a punk racket that sees the them refer to one another as ‘Pig Man’ (a joint pet name). It’s most telling moment comes when Carl spits, “I think he’ll do just fine if he can toe the line”. ‘Glasgow Coma Scale Blues’ is like a hybrid of ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ and ‘What Became Of The Likely Lads’, with the pair swapping barbed lines like Pete’s “You think it’s easy/With a best friend who deceives me” and Carl’s “The only thing that kept it going on was lust for companionship, whiskey and song/How could it go wrong? Seriously…”. The track is named after a method medics use to measure human consciousness – perhaps a comment on the once lifeless condition of their friendship.
There’s plenty of ruminating on the past too. On ‘Fame And Fortune’ – part cockney cabaret, part Russian circus (Gary’s drums and the guitar hook in the intro mimic traditional Russian folk music) – we get stories about signing to Rough Trade (“The deal was done/The trade was rough”) and starting out in the big city. ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’ is set just after those early days, Carl narrating the band’s implosion: “Yes we thought that they were brothers/Then they half-murdered each other”. On the delicate and fragile ‘The Milkman’s Horse’ Pete sings despairingly, “It must be boring being you being me” over brushed drums and winding guitar. It’s unclear whom he’s referencing, but you could apply the line to his replacement in the band by Anthony Rossamando in 2004.
One of ‘Anthems For Doomed Youth”s many strengths lies in the band not trying to replicate what they did on ‘Up The Bracket’ and ‘The Libertines’. For all the pre-album talk of rerecording songs like ‘Bucket Shop’ and ‘Love On The Dole’, only one oldie makes the final tracklisting – a tearjerking new version of ‘You’re My Waterloo’, which mentions railway stations around England (Waterloo, Gypsy Lane) and oft-cited Libs references like Tony Hancock and the Old Vic theatre. On the 1999 demo (still readily available online) Pete can be heard doing his best Brett Anderson impression, but here he’s much more himself, comfortable in the voice he settled into in the early noughties. The song is much the better for it: through an exquisite mix of strings, piano and heartfelt repetitions of the title (which many fans suspect to be about Carl), it’s one of the record’s most beautiful and best songs.
Elsewhere, there are dabbles in reggae and ska (‘Gunga Din’, ‘Barbarians’, ‘Heart Of The Matter’) and sophisticated melodies you wouldn’t necessarily associate with The Libertines. ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’ is meandering and pretty, with backing vocals that erupt in its final throes. ‘Dead For Love’ is even more striking. A tribute to musician Alan Wass, a recently deceased friend of Pete’s, it creates eerie atmosphere with cautious piano stabs and the sound of flickering film reels.
In their prolonged absence, it’s been easy to forget just how much The Libertines mean to people. Their lyrics always offered lines you could take to heart, from ‘I Get Along”s defiant “fuck ’em” to ‘The Good Old Days” “if you’ve lost your faith in love and music the end won’t be long”. ‘Anthems For Doomed Youth’ is no different, giving us “I believe somehow the world’s fucked but it won’t get me down” (‘Barbarians’), “we’re going nowhere but nowhere’s on our way” (‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’) and more. The album’s title is taken from a Wilfred Owen poem dedicated to the fallen soldiers of World War One, and this is the Libertines’ ode to those who, like them, have made it through to the other side.
There are slight missteps along the way, though. Carl’s “Oh fuck it/Here I go again” on ‘Gunga Din’ feels hollow compared to the fury he evokes on other parts of the record. The extreme cockneyisms throughout ‘Fame And Fortune’ are likely to have a Marmite effect on fans, and ‘Iceman’ doesn’t stand up to intense repeat listening – which, when your fans are as obsessive as Libs followers, is a big problem.
‘Anthems For Doomed Youth’ isn’t quite a Libs classic then, but nor will it leave their legacy in tatters. Pete has already spoken about wanting to get a fourth record in the bag as quickly as possible, and this feels like a stepping stone towards both closure and the high standards they set over a decade ago. While the music may not always match up, the lyrics reaffirm The Libertines’ place as one of the most vital British bands ever and should usher a fresh generation of believers on board the good ship Albion.