When reviewing an album, to a certain extent, I like to imagine I’m an alien. I’ve just landed on your “Earth” in my fuel-efficient hybrid UFO, and my first task (other than sampling this turducken we’ve heard so much about on our planet) is to use my aural proboscises to scan this strange new creation you humans call “a musical recording.”
This approach generally serves two purposes: First, it removes the pressure of having to constantly consider an artist’s back catalog when reviewing his or her new album. And, secondly and probably most important, I can pretend I know nothing about the artist, which is useful for someone that pretty much abhors entertainment gossip and thinks art should be separated from the artist. In rare cases, however, I kick this method to the curb, as you humans like to say.
Pete Doherty classifies as one of those cases.
Indeed, the drama, controversy and subsequent mystique surrounding the Babyshambles and former Libertines guitarist/singer that even made me want to hear Grace/Wasteland, his solo debut. I won’t go into details — mainly because I don’t know any — but it seem as Doherty has had a rough go of it. And, for whatever reason — human curiosity, sympathy, depravity, boredom — it may be, I wanted to hear how he channeled the emotion surrounding all this. After all, as the press materials accompanying the record’s release say: “This album is Pete Doherty.” That’s a strong statement, indeed.
Fortunately, Grace/Wasteland is an equally strong statement.
The album signifies a fairly significant departure from Doherty’s past work. Gone are the garage sound, self-assured lyrics, high-energy histrionics and instantly infectious hooks. Instead, Doherty fills Grace/Wasteland with jangly acoustic guitar, delicate string accompaniments and poetic prose filled with subtle humor and self-doubt. A slow boiler, it takes some time to digest, not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, Grace/Wasteland shows a matured Doherty at work, willing to explore new genres and emotions, willing to create music that sacrifices accessibility for honesty. While this approach may disappoint diehard Libertines and Babyshambles fans, it certainly will win Doherty respect among critics and, most importantly, his musical peers.
Unfortunately, while Grace/Wasteland may be a breakthrough of sorts for Doherty, the album’s style and songwriting should not be new to fans of modern British rock. New fans should first seek out the likes of Elbow, I Am Kloot and, more recently, Liam Finn. That being said, Grace/Wasteland does contain many exciting moments.
“Last of the English Roses,” the album’s first single, is a prime example of Doherty’s new aesthetic. At five minutes in length, it’s longer than most of Doherty’s bread and butter work. Though simple in structure, it features extended jams and spoken-word passages. It takes a few listens, but eventually it meanders its way into your conscious and puts down roots.
However, “Sweet By and By” surprises most on Grace/Wasteland. With a New Orleans-style horn accompaniment and tongue-in-cheek lyrics, the song would be at home in Randy Newman’s bag of tricks. Nevertheless, it comes as an unexpected and ultimately welcome side to Doherty.
“Through the Looking Glass” displays a little bit of the punk sensibility we’re used to hearing from Babyshambles. While Doherty may have mellowed out for Grace/Wasteland, he is certainly still the same rough-around-the-edges songwriter fans have come to enjoy.
As with all songwriters aiming for a new approach that covers more terrain, Doherty does miss on occasion. Album opener “Arcadia” and “Sheep Skin Tearaway” slog along painfully and never quite get where you think they’re going. On “Lady, Don’t Fall Backwards,” Doherty aims for Jeff Buckley territory but ends up well short, in a land with too much melodrama and too little of humor and imagination that make the majority of Grace/Wasteland enjoyable. These tracks — though few — occasionally threaten to make the album sound like one long acoustic guitar-strummed song.
In the end, while Grace/Wasteland proves to be slightly uneven and frequently derivative, it is also a sure step forward for a musician who has taken quite a few steps back in recent years. The controversy surrounding Doherty drew me in, but the music kept me listening. And that’s certainly enough to sate my alien appetite. Turducken anyone?