It is, quite simply, the most eagerly anticipated British rock album of this millennium. Even diehard fans scarcely believed that it’d ever get made, that its creators would sort out their differences long enough to scale the heights of their first era together. But The Libertines are no ordinary band. They are, by a long chalk, the most important band of their generation, and, after twelve years’ absence from the studio, they’ve arrived finally to prove the nay-sayers wrong.
‘Anthems For Doomed Youth’ is everything those fans could’ve wished for, and more: a reinstatement of the Libs’ Arcadian creed, a reflection on past trials, and, most importantly, a bold step forward. It harbours songs of primal energy and uplift, of bitter betrayal and loss, and of sun-lit love and redemption. Those who’ve lived for the erratic joys of their two early Noughties albums, ‘Up The Bracket’ and ‘The Libertines’, will instinctively perceive a sense of maturation in its DNA, but they’ll also reap an extravagant pay-off for keeping the faith.
The album’s story begins on 5 July 2014 in Hyde Park, where the four Libs reconvened, not for their first show since back in the day, but certainly the best, and the most mind-blowing, as they headlined in front of a staggering 65,000 people. That night, crowd-surging chaos gripped Central London, causing their performance to be halted briefly on safety grounds. It all finally proved how the music from those first two albums has incubated in the public consciousness in the years since they split in ’04, and how much The Libertines really mean to their public.
With that stamp of vindication, the band reacquired their collective purpose. They played some more fabulously re-energised gigs, including three nights at London’s Alexandra Palace, where co-frontman Peter Doherty announced their intention to cut a new record together. They duly signed with Virgin EMI, who knew that even if the band’s songwriting mojo had deserted them, there was a stockpile of twenty or thirty ‘oldies’ from their early years which were never properly recorded back in the day.
However, during his stay at a Rehab Centre in Sriracha, Thailand, Doherty was joined by his partner Carl Barât for the first of a series of creative summits, which spawned the eleven all-new tracks aboard ‘Anthems For Doomed Youth’.
As Doherty laughingly reasons, “We were honoured and blessed by the gods of Arcady, who saw fit to endow us with some decent tunes. It could’ve been embarrassing, having to resurrect these failed teenage attempts at songwriting, and put fairy lights around them.”
“At first,” adds Barât, “we weren’t really believing it was going to happen. I went out to Thailand a few times. We did demoes, and lived the life – we went out to little islands and stayed in mosquito-ridden healing houses. It became ‘normal’ again – our relationships came back, no-one was tiptoeing anymore, and it was back to the usual push-and-pull of The Libertines, which is our creative engine. We were really excited by the new stuff.”
After leaving rehab, Peter had been living at Karma Sound, a recording studio in the seaside resort of Bang Saray, two hours’ drive from Bangkok. They decided to make the album there, far from the distractions of London, where Carl and drummer Gary Powell both still reside. For six weeks of recording through April and May ’15, they took over the place, turning it into their own creative hub, using multiple studios, and turning the basement into their own mutli-media hang-out, complete with pool table, vintage typewriters, and countless paintings by their own hand.
The album is produced by Jake Gosling whose track record might make him seem like the least likely candidate to work with the Libertines, but Doherty describes Gosling as “the most listened-to producer on the planet” and they all clicked with him on a personal level. In Peter’s words, “he held it all together”, for the first time honing The Libertines’ turbulent energy so that their melodies and poetic lyrics are clear for all to hear.
“The album’s a field day for people who pick up on our lyrics,” says Carl, then pauses for a moment. “Fuck, you could write books on it! We get books’ worth into each song. Every lyric means so much. It’s been heavy times, so there’s a lot of gravity to it.”
One of the key tracks, ‘Fame And Fortune’, presents the story of the band’s first lifespan as a kind of morality tale, telling of how they first arrived in Camden Town, full of hopes and dreams, which were duly exploited and distorted as their star ascended. As bassist John Hassall sagely observes, “Pete and Carl aren’t afraid to tell it how it is. There’s a lot of honesty in there.” “Above all else, it’s the truth,” Barât points out. “It sounds ridiculous and far-fetched, but it is the truth – us going to find the devil at the crossroads, to give anything for fame and fortune.”
Another upbeat song, and the first to go public, ‘Gunga Din’ takes its title from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “about a water wallah,” says Carl, “which was the guy in battle who’d keep all the soldiers tended to”. Through that vehicle, Doherty and Barât reveal their “nefarious sides”, but in the chorus, “garner the better spirit of our true intentions”.
As well as those songs, which update the swingeing self-analysis of 2003’s brink-of-collapse second album, there are others which tap into a more contemplative, sensitive vein, which Doherty in particular feels they were never able to explore before, amid the fast-and-furious chaos of The Libertines’ first incarnation. “There’s so much that we never wrote before,” he says. “Like ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’ – I always knew we had something like that in us, and it really broke my heart, that maybe the band was gonna finish forever, without us ever having written it.”
The album’s extraordinary genesis in Thailand is flagged up on ‘Iceman’, bracketed with acoustic strumming and waves lapping, recorded on Bang Saray’s beach, and on ‘Fury Of Chonburi’, whose title refers to the region they were in, and the haranguing furies of Buddhist mythology.
‘You’re My Waterloo’, by contrast, is the one song drawn from their pre-history demoes. “We’ve been dying to give that a proper treatment,” muses Carl, going on to explain how, at the time it was written, he was scratching a living at the Old Vic theatre near London’s Waterloo station. As delivered in one highly emotional take by Doherty, it stands as an anthem for their partnership, both as it was in the beginning, and now going forward into an unexpectedly bright future.
“It’s been pretty astonishing,” says powerhouse sticks-man Gary Powell, “it’s the most crafted work I’ve seen Pete and Carl do together. There’ve obviously been a fair few hiccups en route to being here, but the album’s a testament to them mending fences within their relationship, and actually just knuckling down and embracing each other’s ability, to move it forward.”
Adds Barât, “I dare say we’ve covered a fair part of the Libertines spectrum of incarnations and guises. There are the fizzy, angry songs, and the heart-wrenching ones. There’s the gutsy stuff, the punchy stuff, the optimistic stuff, and the tragic stuff, with all of the songs being somehow connected and related. We’ve been shoulder to shoulder, strong as can be, and utterly blessed to have this opportunity.”
Concludes Doherty, “I can sit and listen to the tracks we’ve been recording again and again. That’s a new experience for me, even with my solo albums: I’m enjoying listening to my own music while we’re making it. Normally, it’s part of a subplot, or a soundtrack to a subplot. This is the plot itself. There’s nothing else, just the music.”
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Since The Libertines completed ‘Anthems For Doomed Youth’, everything’s been coming up roses. After Foo Fighters pulled out of the Friday headline slot at Glastonbury, they were drafted in last minute to take their place – again, to huge public approval, both in the fields of Avalon, and further afield, as their set was televised around the world. Followed by another triumphant set at T In The Park, this brilliant group – so beloved of anyone with a hankering after a meaningful new chapter in British rock ‘n’ roll, but also renowned for screwing up – are finally nailing it.
“It’s a fucking miracle, actually, it really is,” says Doherty, grinning. “We’re completely blessed that things have worked out this way. I just feel there’s more to come.” Adds Barât, “Obviously, there’s a hope that the album’s gonna reach people, but we can only do what we feel to be natural and true, and I think we’ve been true to ourselves.”
The final thoughts come from John Hassall, man of few words, practising Buddhist, inscrutable presence onstage, but like all four dreamers in the band, now brimming over with optimism: “It’s almost like starting over,” he says, “while still having that history behind us. It’s ironic, going from being The Libertines, to not being The Libertines, then being The Libertines and being bigger than you ever were before. It’s not all plain sailing, we have to get through certain things, but it’s been going amazingly. It’s a great opportunity for us to move forward, in the band and in our personal lives. We’re very united.” He smiles sagely. “It’s better now.”