The Libertines 2023
Photo: Ed Cooke / Republic Records

The Libertines’ ‘All Quiet on the Eastern Esplanade’ Is a Welcome Return

The Libertines’ All Quiet on the Eastern Esplanade is something of mixed bag, but it’s worth persisting with for its moments of beauty and always fun energy.

All Quiet on the Eastern Esplanade
The Libertines
Casablanca / Republic
5 April 2024

The durability of the Libertines‘ reputation is, in some quarters, a matter of much puzzlement. The generally unmemorable nature of much of what was trumpeted as the post-millennium rock revival into which they were lumped means many people see no reason to look closer, while Peter Doherty‘s messy spell in the throes of addiction was a further turn-off for many. What passed those people by was the power of a compelling story, that this wasn’t just a band; this was something to believe in.

After a long apprenticeship, the Libertines emerged into a media half-light already playing the scrappy likely lads with a twinkle in their eyes. That light gradually brightened into a relatable tale of would-be stars thumbing their nose at an increasingly risk-averse industry to play flat parties and front-room gigs. Music history is full of “band of brothers” tales, but Carl Barat and Doherty were such a rare example of genuine and unashamed adoration between two men – something that stood out in the era of lads mags, blokes, and hoary cliched masculinity. It was also bracing, after the lairy, swaggering brashness of the Oasis era, to see guys willing to look vulnerable and in love. The icing on the cake was their vision of Arcadia, a welcome contrast to the pompous and jingoistic flag-waving of English nationalism. Arcadia was an amorphous idea of Britishness resistant to authority, desirous of freedom and toleration, celebrating a swirl of romantic and poetic precursors.

…And then there was the darkness. The attractive mythology of the Libertines became entwined with the grimy influence of crack cocaine and heroin, the “have we enough to keep it together?” will they/won’t they tale of a band teetering on the brink before the inevitable fall. The tabloids inevitably adored the schadenfreude, the easy moralizing, and the celebrity sparkle of Kate Moss and Amy Winehouse – all of which served to prevent the Libertines, and Doherty in particular, from descending into the obscurity that would have met lesser talents. For better or worse, stitching this shadow into their bright fabrics filled out the band’s image making it impossible to look away and creating durability to their story.

Of course, there was also the dead body too. In September 2023, British audiences got to watch the Channel 4 documentary Pete Doherty, Who Killed My Son?, which laid out the death of Mark Blanco in 2006 in squalid detail. This was followed in October by Peter Doherty: Stranger in My Own Skin, a documentary filmed by his partner, Katia de Vidas, and then a lengthy encounter with famed interviewer Louis Theroux on the BBC in November. It’s impossible not to see the latter two programs as a PR agency’s damage limitation effort trying to counter the inevitable scent clinging to Doherty, given the Channel 4 show pointed very strongly to one, possibly two, members of his druggie entourage having killed a man. Even in a true crime-obsessed era, it’s certainly not been an “all publicity is good publicity” add-on.

Love and death, heaven and hell, personal relationships and broader national ideals, the Libertines were never just another band and never just about the music… But the main thing overlooked by those judging or sneering was that the music itself was always bloody good, and they were always wildly talented. The good times of 2002’s Up the Bracket and the drama of 2004’s self-titled follow-up left a worthy catalog on which Barat and Doherty’s solo excursions built in solid, sometimes spectacular, fashion. 2010’s on-stage reunion was welcome, then five years later, the comeback album, 2015’s Anthems For Doomed Youth, emerged, and, ye gods! It was everything a fan could have wished for: all the poetry, companionship, bonhomie, self-criticism, and beauty of the band’s wild ride on full display.

So, where are we in 2024? There are no weighty expectations clinging to their fourth album, All Quiet on the Eastern Esplanade, an absence of external pressures that seems to have worked to the Libertines’ detriment even if it made it a more enjoyable experience for them. The highlights are oddly backloaded, with the first half of the record feeling calibrated to the demands of outdoor festival stages where the environment mitigates against subtlety.

While energetic enough for a crowd to roar the chorus, the first single and album opener, “Run Run Run”, is so straightforward it feels like this dexterous and imaginative band are relearning how to make songs together to some basic grid. The Libertines’ back catalogue shows them having surpassed that two decades ago with their extensive instrumental skills. Luckily, there’s quite a bit of that talent on display, too. In “Be Young”, there’s a strong hint at Up the Bracket, a quote of “Get up, stand up!” before an unexpected ska breakdown. “Oh Shit” is even better with near-echoes of “Don’t Look Back Into the Sun” in the song’s hammering main riff before a great skin-scraping breakdown prior to the second verse. Both songs have a highly attractive Johnny Thunders in his prime punk/rock vibe. For those who want the peak indie party energy side of the Libertines, it’s all here.

“Night of the Hunter” is an artful centerpiece drawing on images from the 1955 Robert Mitchum vehicle in its depictions of tattooed knuckles, expanded into an array of outlaw behavior and unwanted consequences. Again, the joys of the Libertines lie in the unexpected tossing together of the unexpected: At one point, a voice crackles in with “…And the radio says…” while the guitar riff puts the song in the lineage of Public Image Ltd‘s “Death Disco” with its mimicking of Swan Lake. “Baron’s Claw” is another song drawing on B-movie influences, this time ornamented by an entire New Orleans jazz band that rubs against the more ominous tone of the lyrics in disconcerting and intriguing ways.

The closer, “Songs They Never Play on the Radio,” is a further highlight and yet more self-mythologization with its nod to Doherty’s line “They’ll never play this on the radio,” from the outro to Babyshambles‘ 2005 hit “Fuck Forever”. As well as being the most Beatlesque song the Libertines have ever done, there’s a clear parallel with Oasis‘ “Whatever” from 1994 in the way the massed chorus gives way to blokey giggling and the group goofing about in the studio, puncturing possible accusations of self-importance or over-reach. The real heart of the song is in hearing the full grain of Doherty’s voice so up close and personal. Apparently, this one had been on the mind for a while, never quite perfect, but enough that Doherty says that listening to it, “I’m in that much of a mess I’m blubbing my heart out.”

The album’s key misstep is that the production feels too overpowered and constantly crushes the Libertines’ strangeness and poetry underfoot. For example, “Shiver” opens with an ominous glide of strings and piano and would represent a much-needed change of energy on a very gloss-heavy album. Instead, that cold night air is blasted away, and the song winds up stifled with tambourines, violins, pianos, and too much heat that doesn’t feel like a good fit for lines about “the last dream of every dying soldier. I’ve seen you there, flowers in your hair…” “Man With the Melody” is another song where Doherty’s vocal fizzes with intelligent decisions that mark it as one of his best, but he’s backed by cloying orchestral interventions that may be new for the Libertines but never rise about a thousand cliches.

The same goes for the heartfelt “Merry Old England”, where the Libertines’ commitment to a Britishness open to the world and not death-gripping racial purity is submerged beneath an everything and the kitchen sink approach, so here we go again: strings, backing vocalists, big daubs of studio paint slopped over everything until there’s no space to breathe. It’s a real contrast to the deft changes of pace and mood on Anthems For Doomed Youth, where lyrics, instrumental skills, positioning in the track listing, and production all follow the emotions expressed.

Overall, the album is a mixed bag, but it’s worth persisting with for its moments of beauty and always fun energy. Certainly, waywardness has been one of the Libertines’ most endearing allegiances, so All Quiet on the Eastern Esplanade sits comfortably within their catalog. One can only hope they abandon what sounds like an attempt at the kind of dependably lifeless studio work that Foo Fighters have made their stock in trade and, instead, keep flags flying for their own unique brand of weird.

RATING 6 / 10