If you don’t know who The Libertines are, don’t feel bad. It’s not every day you find a ’90s-bred college student fluent in the early 2000s Brit-garage-rock revival. While we were watching “Dora the Explorer,” Libertines frontman Pete Doherty was injecting illegal substances, courting Kate Moss and singing about the “Boys in the Band.” But hey, here we are — and here The Libertines are with a brand new release, just 11 years after their last album. No big deal.
A more proper biopic: Four strapping chaps from the mean streets of London banded together around 1997, at the prompting of Doherty and co-founder/guitarist Carl Barât, to form the group some of us — particularly Brits — now know and love. They put out two incredible albums in 2002 and 2004 (Up the Bracket and The Libertines, respectively), but underwent an ugly breakup in 2004 that stemmed from Doherty’s profound romance with crack, cocaine and heroin. Ahem. Forgive me, Your Majesty.
Anthems For Doomed Youth
So what’s the point, you ask? Why are we bothering with these sloppy, short-lived hooligans who obviously can’t seem to get their shit together? Well, to start, The Libertines’s music is nothing short of consistently brilliant (see: “Can’t Stand Me Now,” “Time for Heroes” and “The Good Old Days”). And though they have lost a smidgen of their edge now, it seems, Anthems for Doomed Youth is a valiant comeback for these resilient Redcoats.
The aptly titled “Barbarians” begins the punk-throwback journey, and here The Libertines rest in familiar territory. Catchy tempo changes, rebellious lyrics, clanging guitars — it’s all good stuff, even if Doherty sounds the tiniest bit soggier than before (sobriety’s a bitch). “Belly of the Beast” is similar in its nostalgic allure, and “Glasgow Coma Scale Blues” adds some chutzpah to the Libertinian formula with its nifty stop-start riffs and great rock feel.
Whatever it means, “Fury of the Chonburi” works just as well. It brings the group’s coolest defining characteristic back to the forefront: messy choruses that are the sonic equivalent of a train-wreck bar fight too fascinating to look away from. “Gunga Din” is also stellar — a ska-esque, Californian ditty with chords that aim to please. Easy, breezy, beautiful. Libertines.
The band starts to fall off the bracket, though, with the slow songs. Yes, balance and diversity is the key to any proportional, successful compilation, but Anthems for Doomed Youth overestimates the temporary charm of a yawn. “You’re My Waterloo” is lovely but underwhelming, and then “Iceman” starts, along with the listener’s desire to doze off. By the time “The Milkman’s Horse” comes around, the stretchy argot of Doherty’s lyrics and sleepy background drums have the listener itching to abuse the fast-forward button. Here’s the problem: The Libertines have proven they can do truly inventive slow stuff (“Music When The Lights Go Out”) in the past. As a result, these new, yet trite tracks sound studio-ized and lackluster at best. If anything, the closing “Dead for Love” is effective because of its deep lyrical content detailing the passing of one of Doherty’s druggie friends. “Fame and Fortune” completely misses the mark, as it mostly sounds like a creepy musical number the Artful Dodger would sing to little punk rockers in training.
The album hits the nail on the head, though, at precisely two locations. “Heart of the Matter” is a gritty triumph, showcasing The Libertines in their most perfect, traditional form. No resting, no slowing down, just pure, unadulterated garage. And what’s that I hear? Ever-so-slight synths in the background? Score one for Team Doherty.
“Anthem for Doomed Youth,” the titular track, is perhaps the biggest accomplishment. “Was it Cromwell or Orwell who first led you to the stairwell, which leads only forever to kingdom come? Rushed along by guiding hands, whispers of the promised land . They wished you luck and handed you a gun,” Doherty philosophizes against desperate acoustic guitars. This is where “lackluster” can work in favor of the band — when the theme of the tune is that of the simultaneous beauty and ennui of youth. The music then conveys the longing, the aimlessness of feeling the world at your fingertips. The Libertines know what it’s like to muck up that potential. But maybe there’s something to mucking it up and getting it right — bloody right — in the end.