Personal problems can be distracting even for the most professional, but it must be fair to say that the almost unavoidable publicity surrounding the ongoing drama of Pete Doherty and the Libertines is a little draining. Unfortunately the band are almost better known for tabloid headlines than the music itself, which according to Doherty, is the sound of “someone put in the rubbish chute at the back of a council estate, trying to work out what day it is”.
And indeed this description (a little rough on the outside, as well as dramatic) excellently characterises much of Anthems for Doomed Youth, the Libertines’ “comeback” after an eleven year studio break. Upbeat opener “Barbarians” is a call to arms (to the “mental crowd”) celebrating “the thug you can’t cultivate / Working his scrubs by the prison gate” (Doherty has been to prison); the dead-end “Gunga Din” struggles with the repetition of addiction (“sick and tired of feeling sick and tired again”), and “Fame and Fortune” shambles around Camden Town with comic mockney attitude. The bright delivery infers a positive take on the band’s history, although a recommendation is turned into a warning to “hold on to your dreams, however bleak it seems / The world they may not listen, but the devil may care”.
Things get more musically sophisticated with the title track indebted to first world war poet Wilfred Owen, with the Libertines accepting their own doom of “we’re going nowhere / But nowhere, nowhere’s on our way”. Owen had Siegfried Sassoon, Carl Barât has Pete Doherty, and the relationship between Barât and Doherty certainly creates a dynamic tension. Few other bands have two lead singers, and it gives the Libertines a distinctive edge.
The Libertines’ general fractiousness leads to a dark and understated sense of humour, with a therapist on “Belly of the Beast” coming to the inevitable but amusing conclusion when faced with extreme dysfunction that “Pound for pound, blow for blow / You’re the most messed-up motherfucker I know”. The driving self-regarding misery of “Heart of the Matter” is also wryly humorous, alternating between sympathy and extreme scorn. Despite the messy landscape, the lyrics can be witty; “You’re my Waterloo” addresses a broken lover by telling them that they will “never fumigate the demons / No matter how much you smoke”, and goes on to reference Judy Garland, Tony Hancock, and flowers from the Old Vic stage.
Musically there is enough variation to make Anthems for Doomed Youth a satisfying listen. The city clouds of smoke in “Iceland” hint at psychedelia; the fast punk of “Fury of Chonburi” flits a wink at Doherty’s rehab in Thailand; “Glasgow Coma Scale Blues” is a raucous study in disillusionment; the beatific reverie of “The Milkman’s Horse” and the determined heartbreak of “Dead For Love” slow things down with some success.
The deluxe version of the album has four bonus tracks. Such shameless capitalism may seem out of place for a band who focus on unruly bohemianism, but the lifestyle is no doubt an expensive game, and it looks like, from the outside anyway, that the principals believe in living authentically. “Love on the Dole” rumbustiously raises a defiant finger to “the boring classes”, although just getting by no longer seems an option when the poor are far from blessed. Long-term fans will be pleased to hear that Albion regularly features in the album lexicon, with an ironic creed of being “pure in thoughts and word and deed” on the tormented “Bucket Shop”. Despite the dishevelled nonchalance, this is a band who clearly think things through; the loose start to the self-referential “Lust of the Libertines” has a heavy dose of studio chatter, but by now the Libertines know where they’re heading, even if it takes a while to get there. “The 7 Deadly Sins” suggests it may be oblivion, but let’s hope not. Anthems for Doomed Youth does what it needs to do by re-establishing the band, but longevity may depend on keeping the personal drama to a minimum, and instead confining it to the music. However in the present, Anthems for Doomed Youth is an enjoyable overload of charisma.