I remember back in yesteryear when I was avoiding reading Of Mice and Men at GCSE and I kept hearing this word “microcosm” being thrown around the classroom. Well I think it turned out to be a fancy word for “snapshot” or maybe “slice” or whatever, I don’t know. I got a B. Honestly I could be way off the mark here but for arguments sake let’s pretend I’m right. Anyways, with The Libertines there are plenty of snapshots that represent the band as a whole; for example there is of course *that* famous photograph of Pete and Carl slumped into each other drunkenly showing off their tattoos. Peter (fresh out of prison) is looking rough and shying away from the photographer but defiantly displaying his “Libertine” tattoo whilst Carl bravely poses into the camera trying to hold the photoshoot together and look cool doing so. The first song on Up The Bracket was the sound of young men trying their very hardest to start a riot and have a good time, because that’s exactly what the band were back then in 2002. Similarly the first song from their self-titled record was a perfect depiction of the band at the time: two best friends falling out love, unable to deal with the realities of their increasing fame.
The opening track of Anthems For Doomed Youth is Barbarians, and it’s the sound of a relationship being rebuilt and a musical partnership being reformed. The crisp, mature production and tamed guitars are evidence of the band flirting with middle age whilst the hopeful lyrics and entwined vocals hark back to the The Libertines’ early-noughties heyday. Once again the first track is a sign of what is in store for the rest of the album, but in truth that’s not an entirely inspiring omen. As impressively professional as the production of this record is, it doesn’t really suit Doherty and Barat’s songwriting or their tendencies for charmingly imperfect musicianship. It’s like the first two albums were solid, exciting songs hidden behind a layer of aggressive clatterings and yelps but on Anthems the scraps have been torn off and the songs are laid bare. Sadly, on more than one occasion they really don’t hold up well enough. Barbarians is a prime example of this with it’s lazy hamfisted choruses and forgettable guitarwork, although it’s one redeeming feature is the refreshingly honest autobiographical lyrics which the band have always specialised in. Thankfully the next few tracks are a huge improvement on the opener and maintain its excellent lyrics. Gunga Din and Anthems For Doomed Youth in particular balance self-aware, honest lyricism with moving displays of imagery and poetry. The former is a hugely overproduced hi-fi reggae infused swagger where Pete and Carl address their respective demons; the latter an ever-rising intense ballad analysing the pair’s relationship in the early days. They’re both extremely strong tracks which also translated well live at Reading Festival, although not so much at Electric Ballroom… ha.
Throughout the album it’s clear that The Libertines are now at their best when addressing the present day. The more mature, fully formed songs are the true highlights whereas filler tracks Fury Of Chonburi, Belly Of The Beast and the aforementioned Barbarians sound like cheap throwbacks to an era best left to be remembered nostalgically. It’s somewhat ironic then that the oldest song on the album, You’re My Waterloo is such an album highlight. The Doherty-penned number which dates back to 1999 is a perfect love song written about fellow frontman Carl, and it gets given the full gleaming valet service in this latest version. Pete’s surprisingly stunning vocal performance is accompanied by powerful piano, moving strings and a fantastic climactic guitar solo. Between the slow-burning highlights and the rushed throwback lowpoints of the album, there’s a collection of 5 or so perfectly enjoyable tracks each with their own respective charms and shortcomings. The gently strummed Iceman features strong vocal performances and a solid chorus though the lyrics are occasionally teenage and clumsy. Glasgow Coma Scale Blues rattles along at a thousand miles an hour with so much more purpose than the other high-tempo songs on the album but it’s still not exciting enough to be a real standout and Heart Of The Matter sounds like a middle-aged Time For Heroes. The album is closed with the sobering and impressive Dead For Love, which is easily the darkest The Libs have sounded since the twisted (B-side to Up The Bracket) Plan A.
Expectations for the album were generally quite low, and the boys have managed to pull out a group of songs far better than all of the omens seemed to suggest they were capable of in 2015. There will be many people who severely wanted to love this album and there are certainly loveable moments, but there is also a good case to be made by anybody who wanted to hate the album. Overall it’s an enjoyable listen, a massive relief to have the boys back in business and a hugely exciting sign of things to come if the band take their time to put out a fourth album. There’s a lyric in Heart Of The Matter where Doherty sings “With all the battering it’s taken/I’m surprised it’s still ticking”, this presumably about his poor, abused heart but the same could be said for The Libertines themselves. After a true rollercoaster of being lambasted by the media, falling in and out of with each other and battling against their respective demons The Libertines have produced an album far better than even the most optimistic fan could have hoped for. Many happy returns.