September 18, 2015

TEST SPIN: The Libertines — Anthems for Doomed Youth

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Long ago, the Libertines released two of the absolute best rock records of the last decade: 2002’s near-flawless Up the Bracket and 2004’s messy but brilliant The Libertines. Since the band’s breakup, equal-part frontmen Pete Doherty and Carl Barât have each explored subsequent careers as the frontmen of Babyshambles and Dirty Pretty Things, respectively. However, while both of these projects have produced some excellent music, neither came close to equalling the brilliant, calamitous poetry of those two Libertines records.

Anthems for Doomed Youth, which has arrived over ten years after the last Libertines album, is a hugely exciting prospect for the cult of Libertines fans — but anyone hoping for an equal of those two absolutely vital records should lower their expectations. While it’s pleasant in and of itself to hear Barât and Doherty alternating verses and harmonizing again, Anthems is a decidedly more low-key affair than the Libertines’ past work. It feels unmistakably like the work of an older band than the one that made rabid, sloppy and supremely tuneful songs like “What a Waster” and “Up the Bracket.”

The problem that the Libertines face is that a key aspect of their two great records was the strangely invigorating sense that the entire operation could collapse at any moment. Their name was almost too fitting; Wild self-destructive tendencies seemed to fuel the urgency of their music and simultaneously eat away at the band itself. Barât and Doherty share a relationship that is almost lover-like in its intensity and capacity for bitterness and jealousy (which is explored on The Libertines in depth, on songs like “Can’t Stand Me Now”). Furthermore, Doherty’s spiralling drug addiction seemed to suck away his ability to make music as he became an increasing fixture in British tabloidsm because of escapades like showing up to court for heroin charges and then dropping a bag of heroin from his pocket onto the floor. Especially on The Libertines, the fragile waywardness bled into the music, with tracks that seemed not far beyond sketches punctuated by fierce attacks of distortion, alternating with fully realized, gorgeously melodic songs.

The Libertines are in the awkward position of returning to a legacy of messy, youthful abandon as men in their mid-30s. While the inconsistency of their second album made it far from flawless, nothing on Anthems rivals those great songs. Tempos are nearly universally slower on Anthems, whether they’re pretty but slight ballads like “You’re My Waterloo” or reggae-rock like the single “Gunga Din,” which is yet another ode to self-destruction. There are many sweet moments, but none that succeed in fusing aching beauty with a savage aura of danger like the Libertines once did.

Mostly, Anthems just kind of happens. Most of the songs have a melody that seems potent enough while it’s playing, but doesn’t stick after the song ends. I have a hard time imagining anyone walking around with “Fury of Chonburi” or “Glasgow Coma Scale Blues” stuck in their head.

Of course, earworm melodies are not necessarily essential in great music, but since that is a huge part of what made the Libertines stand out originally, it does feel that something is missing on Anthems. In fact, the record’s best moments are those that don’t attempt anything like the raucous, intricate melodies of the past, and settle for a somber, leisurely simplicity, like the lovely title track and the final song, “Dead For Love.” On the former, Barât sings, “We’re going nowhere, but nowhere’s on our way.” This could be the motif of the record, and of the Libertines’ reunion as a whole: aimless, a bit optimistic and a bit melancholy.