As far as big British classic rock reunions go, few are as contentious as the announcement of that of The Libertines last summer. They were a band for dreamers, hedonists, nihilist, romantics and anarchists – a band that arrived at the turn of the millennium, when British rock had no clear direction, creed or cause to fight for. One could argue this was symptomatic of a global complex within guitar music as a whole, whose last major escapades took form in grunge and Britpop and were now nursing their hangover.
The Strokes broke this lacklustre streak, making kids want to pick up guitars and wear skinny jeans again, casting a shadow over New York indie that still exists today. Similarly, The Libertines set out to do this in 2002, leaving a sonic legacy that would spawn the likes of The Kooks, The Cribs and Arctic Monkeys to name a few. But just as the greatest rock stories tend to go, the band was destined to implode rather than fade away, in a mindless whirlwind of drug-use, betrayal and music.
The worry amongst fans was that, by releasing music after their perfectly tragic demise, they would compromise their artistic integrity. Yet as real as this danger may be, this mindset is sure to cast a shade of disappointment on anything The Libertines release, regardless of quality; they may release a carbon-copy of their first album and “sell-out” charges would still be brought to their name. Nevertheless, it is impossible to withhold an ever-so-slight scepticism at the start of your first listen. Barbarians instils a light-headed groove at the album’s inception, from which Pete Doherty’s voice materialises like a ghost – only to be interrupted by stabs at Ska and Jam-like bursts of noise. It is not as explosive an opener as heard on the other two albums, but it serves as a statement of intent, sporting the mantra, “The world’s fucked but won’t get me down”.
When Gunga Din was released, I initially found it a curious choice as a comeback single. Instead of the riotous call-to-arms everyone was expecting we received a wounded and earnest confession on the subject of their vices and fatal flaws. The motivational chorus has staying power and the car crash at the end sonically mimics the band’s road to ruin. The glam stomper Fame and Fortune isn’t so much self-mythology of their early days in London as it is a tongue-in-cheek self-indictment for their detractors. But it is from Anthem For Doomed Youth onwards that the album loses its self-awareness and becomes compelling. The title track is a tender Libs classic drenched in melancholy and reassurance, and perfectly segues into the album’s centrepiece, re-recorded oldie, You’re My Waterloo. Do not be fooled by the piano arrangement, as it undresses the song to show Doherty at his most bare and enhances Carl’s guitar solo to a thing of wonder.
Iceman marks the start of a shiver-inducing second half of the album, which is much clearer in its vision, with the sound of waves lapping against the shore. Guitars emerge from the shadows, sounding like pirates having just landed on newfound land, in a clear nod to their Arcadian dreams. It is the love story of two vagabonding souls, wanderlusting through London: Carl tells of “those winter nights they’d walk along the river/ he’d chain-smoke and she’d stare up at the sky”. The romantic portraits of the verses are juxtaposed against the ominous precautionary tale of the “iceman” in the chorus, a personification of drug-addiction, in the message that there is nothing wrong with libertine aspirations of “companionship, whiskey and song,” as long as one does not fall into the abyss.
This message finds a different medium in the instant Libertines classic Heart Of The Matter, where it approaches the subject from the other side of this abyss in a survivor’s tale. The song perfectly encapsulates the dejection of depression, with the energetic guitar channelling the drive to get out of the stupor and the bridge capturing the bittersweet retrospective telling of everything you’ve undergone. The song culminates in chorus which could pass as despair itself with Pete demanding “Why so glum? Its all on a platter / What’s the matter, what’s the matter today?” Pete Doherty’s reggae-tinged diction is irresistible over the eclectic rhythm, and the repeat of the mantra and the intensity of the drums drive the chorus into a perfectly cut coda. It is pure, unabashed catharsis, the best song on the album, and sure to be a fan-favourite.
Milkman’s Horse wears a poignant, minimalist guitarline with Pete’s sullen, breathy purr atop in holy confession, a Doherty hallmark, later brought somewhere warmer by Carl chasing his night-terrors out: “What you done / Get out of my dreams you scum / They weren’t meant for anyone.” In these three songs we see Pete and Carl’s symbiosis restored the their former ruddy glory, at which point doubts on their authenticity are put to bed. Naturally, a Libertines album wouldn’t be one without some chord-smashing debauchery after all that heartstring-plucking, and these come in the form of Fury Of Chonburi and Glasgow Coma Scale Blues which are incendiary and clangy gig-shredders, complete with Carl’s signature crashing guitarline and Peter’s howling.
Aside from a lacklustre eulogy to Pete Doherty’s late friend (Dead For Love) wrapping up proceedings, this is a much better album than anyone could have realistically expected from the likely lads, and after you let the first few listens settle your paranoia, you can learn to let the songs take over your being, as they were written genuinely. Despite being their third best album, they are songs for despondency and recovery. In any case, Pete has avidly expressed his desire to start recording the follow up as soon as possible, which may end up making this album the difficult and necessary album that paves the road to the great Libertines albums of the future.