It’s a strange feeling listening to the third Libertines album in 2015, since it’s a moment few thought would actually happen. Between their debut Up the Bracket in 2002 and their second self-titled album in 2004, the band were known as much for the dispute between frontmen Carl Barât and Pete Doherty as they were for their leadership of the garage rock revival movement in the UK. While Barât and Doherty started as visibly close friends, Doherty’s notorious drug use constantly affected their recording and touring until Barât barred him from playing with the band. This bickering was so prominent it was the subject of two songs on their self-titled album, and for a while reconciliation seemed as likely as the Gallagher brothers making amends. Despite their long-lasting influence on the British indie rock scene for years to come, it seemed like The Libertines would join the ranks of bands that only put out a few exemplary releases before calling it quits.
In the years since this split, Barât and Doherty have remained on the scene with other musical projects. In addition to solo releases, Doherty released three albums with his band Babyshambles and Barât released two albums with Dirty Pretty Things (a band that also included Libertines drummer Gary Powell and touring guitarist Anthony Rossomando). Barât also released an album with his band The Jackals earlier this year, which found its members through open auditions. All of these projects had their strengths and weaknesses, but could seemingly never live up to what The Libertines had done.
Potentially with this in mind, The Libertines started reuniting for shows in 2010 and began regularly playing together in 2014. Plans for a new album were announced at the beginning of this year when Doherty finished his rehab treatment, and it looked like The Libertines were ready to put the past behind them and pick up where they left off. As far as the content of the new album, the bar was set fairly high by both their past acclaim and an 11-year wait.
Up The Bracket was a chaotic mix of raw guitar riffs and Cockney accents. The Libertines had a cleaner sound with more deliberate notes and more comprehensible vocals. Now Anthems For Doomed Youth is to use a cliché – a more “mature” album. This is to be expected to a degree, given the years of substance abuse, depression, and rehab that have marked the band’s past. Recklessness has been abandoned for reflection, and hopeful proclamations for cynicism. This does entail an overall milder sound, but don’t think this means The Libertines are anywhere near defeated.
Musically Anthems for Doomed Youth is all over the place, which may disappoint any fans hoping for another solid garage rock release. There’s still some garage remnants in the back to back tracks “Heart of the Matter” and “Fury of Chonburi,” along with the late-album “Glasgow Coma Scale Blues,” but the rest of the album is either too precise or too mellow to fit this bill. Opening tracks “Barbarians” and “Gunga Din” have influences of punk-reggae a la The Clash, which is slightly ironic since Mick Jones produced their first two albums but not Anthems. Regardless, they end up being standout tracks. Elsewhere, “Fame and Fortune” sounds vaguely of Franz Ferdinand and “Belly of the Beast” has a hint of country to it.
Anthems for Doomed Youth is otherwise big on softer songs, which isn’t wholly new territory for the band (see “Radio America” and “Music when the Lights Go Out”). This experience shows on the title track, which builds into a crescendo at the chorus and is another album highlight. There’s also the piano ballad “You’re My Waterloo,” which is a bit of a strange fit, and album closer “Dead for Love” that seems to pull out all the grandiose stops yet remains somewhat anticlimactic. And while these songs commit to their tone, songs like the ominous “Iceman” and decaffeinated rocker “The Milkman’s Horse” seem to waver.
As expected, the lyrics on Anthems for Doomed Youth deal heavily with the Barât-Doherty dynamic. Only this time, there’s no playful “can’t take me anywhere” banter like that on “Can’t Stand Me Now.” Instead, we have “we thought that they were brothers then they half-murdered each other” on the title track and “the only thing that kept us apart was your cold unloving heart” on “Glasgow Coma Scale Blues.” Elsewhere, they deal with their former addictions, with “Gunga Din” referencing heroin and alcohol and “Iceman” warning listeners to learn from Doherty’s drug-riddled past. While this might make it seem like a gloomy album, there is a hint of defiance in lines like “the world’s fucked but it won’t get me down” on “Barbarians.” After all, The Libertines have made it this far, a place few though they would be again. Or in Doherty’s words, “with all the battering it’s taken, I’m surprised it’s still ticking.”
While the bar was invariably set high for Anthems for Doomed Youth and it may not live up to years of hype, it would be very difficult to call it a disappointment. Its relative tameness and branching into new musical styles may disappoint some fans, but a reprise of the wilder sound from over a decade ago could seem insincere for the band members and anachronistic for the indie scene they themselves helped create. After all, bands like The Strokes and Arctic Monkeys have moved on from their garage rock origins, and distorted repetitive riffs have lost out to synthesizers and psychedelic influences over the years. This also may explain why the album’s more frantic garage tracks aren’t terribly memorable when compared to the reggae-tinged songs or the title track. Anthems For Doomed Youth also lacks the simplicity and catchiness of the first two Libertines albums, which makes it inopportune as an introduction to the band. However, it should reward longtime fans that are content to add some depth and hope to the band’s saga.