It’s been seven years since the last LP from Peter Doherty, the look-I’m-sober alter ego of the Libertines and Babyshambles frontman known for one less “r” and a whole lot more decadence. That LP, 2009’s hit-and-miss Grace/ Wastelands, was welcomed as proof of the former enfant terrible of indie’s newfound maturity; Doherty was 30, purportedly clean, and writing songs leavened by his signature wit and posh poet-slacker style. The songs may not have stacked up well against the best of the Barât/ Doherty partnership, but they were thoughtful, lyrically adroit, and consistent with the artist that you always believed was just behind the Libertines’ tabloid-grabbing bluster and bloated mystique. “Sweet By and By” was a finger-waggling ditty straight out of the ’40s jazz scene performed by someone envisioning the specter of Kate Moss splayed out atop his piano. “Last of the English Roses”, perhaps the best the album had to offer, sounded like a Libertines cut that Doherty slipped in his pocket to keep Barât from finding it.
These tracks didn’t make Grace / Wastelands a standout record — not even one good enough to justify that extra “r” pegged to Pete’s name — but it suggested that Doherty had a few more tricks up his sleeve. Hamburg Demonstrations, for all its charm and cheeky wordplay and get-the-bar-to-its-feet swagger, doesn’t quite live up to the expectations that its forbear set for it. Nevertheless, this is millennial Brit-rock through and through, bristling with vernacular attitude and guitars by turns reeking of booze and windowless bedrooms. But that’s not saying much; we’ve come to expect nothing less from Doherty, “r” or no “r”.
Recorded in Hamburg, Germany, where the Beatles cut their teeth as performers, the LP has a distinctly urban feel. There’s no “Sweet By and By” here to speckle your ears with sunlight. These 11 tracks, while not always somber, smack of concrete, smog, gray skies, and graffiti stretching out for miles. This is Doherty’s Hamburg: the sidewalks are strewn with depressive types; the balconies peppered with parting lovers. “I Don’t Love Anyone (But You’re Not Just Anyone)”, for instance, sounds like a dirge delivered after a night of smoking, drinking, and flitting from bar to bar in the hope of staving off loneliness. Vocally, Doherty seems perfectly at home. He mumbles, groans, and staggers his way through the lyric, each syllable falling out of his mouth like a half-smoked cigarette he forgot was still there.
Listening to “I Don’t Love Anyone”, it would be easy to believe the critical consensus about Doherty: namely, that he’s a sporadically brilliant but essentially sloppy songwriter who phones it in half the time and leans too much on his dandyish poet-laureate-of-rock persona. In fact, listening to most of Hamburg Demonstrations would lead you to this belief as well. “Down For the Outing” is a jaunty faux-wartime strut that suffers from the same charisma shortage that afflicted some of the clunkier cuts from Grace/ Wastelands (“Broken Love Song”, “A Little Death Around the Eyes”) . “She Is Far” strives to close the record with the same cracked-voice romanticism that made “Lady Don’t Fall Backwards” so endearing seven years ago, but it comes up short.
That’s not to say that the record is a total fall backwards, though. Much of the first half — “Kolly Kibber”, “Birdcage”, “Hell to Pay at the Gates of Heaven” — is palatable in a jagged, unpolished, B-side kind of way. The melodies don’t necessarily stick, but Doherty occasionally manages to shape his lyrics into tremulous passages of vocal creativity. “The Whole World Is Our Playground”, for example, finds him at his most sincere and expressive. It starts with an acoustic guitar riff that may be the LP’s most resplendent moment; Doherty’s fingers bend the strings into a shimmering glow of early morning optimism that later returns in verbal form for the chorus. “The whole world is our playground / Take the night by the hand / And set it on fire again,” he sings, his enunciation of “hand” cracking under the weight of the life he’s envisioning for himself and his lover. It’s a song that shows what Doherty is capable of when he really invests himself in his songcraft – something that, sadly, we haven’t seen since he added that “r” back onto his name.