It was a rise and fall like no other. In fact, if the story of The Libertines was pitched as a film to someone with no prior knowledge of the band, it would probably be dismissed as too outrageous to be true. Following the release of their critically-acclaimed debut, Up The Bracket, the relationship between the quartet became increasingly fractious, with Pete Doherty’s drug problems spiraling out of control.
When Doherty went to prison after breaking into co-frontman Carl Barât’s flat, it seemed likely that they would be a one-album wonder. Remarkably, the two frontmen were able to patch up their differences for long enough to produce the band’s self-titled second album – with its now iconic album artwork – before imploding once again and leaving many fans wondering whether they had seen the last of The Libertines.
“An ending fitting for the start,” Barât sung on the 2004 LP’s classic opener Can’t Stand Me Now, perfectly summing up the position the band were in at the time. Their eponymous second record should have been the start of something much bigger – it did top the UK Album Chart, after all – but instead it marked the end. Or it did, until they announced that they would finally record their long-awaited third album at the end of last year.
Yet while the news of The Libertines’ proper return – there was a brief live reunion for Reading and Leeds Festivals in 2010 – was greeted with delight by many, there were understandable questions about whether they would be able to recapture the magic with new album, Anthems For Doomed Youth. However, any fears were quickly dispelled by first single Gunga Din, which has already established itself as a fan favourite.
“Woke up again, to my chagrin/ getting sick and tired of feeling sick and tried again,” sings Doherty, in a suitably world-weary manner, before he is joined by Barât for a huge chorus that lives up to the record’s title. As comeback singles go, it pretty much ticks every box, providing the perfect introduction to the lyrical themes that dominate the record. Anthems For Doomed Youth is about reflection; and boy, do Carl and Pete have a lot to reflect on.
The album’s focal point, the beautifully poignant piano ballad You’re My Waterloo, perhaps captures this theme the best. Despite being the one old track that The Libertines recorded for their return, the 1999 track manages to sum up the trials and tribulations the band – and perhaps more crucially, the two frontmen – have been through, as Doherty sings: “You’ll never fumigate the demons/ no matter how much you smoke.”
Belly Of The Beast takes the aftermath of the band’s breakdown even further, with Barât acknowledging his own struggles (“Back in London’s grey scotch mist, staring up at my therapist/ He says pound for pound, blow for blow/ you’re the most messed up motherfucker I know”). Barât also takes the lead on the title track, which is another wistful, melodic ballad about The Libertines’ story (“Yes we thought they were brothers/ then they half murdered each other”).
Anthems is certainly a world away from the chaotic, raw urgency of its predecessors. Yet that is not to say The Libertines have forgotten how to have fun. Opener Barbarians sees them embrace a joyous, shout-a-long chorus over ramshackle guitars, while Fury Of Chonburi is a proper throwback to the band’s Up The Bracket days. It is paired with new single Heart Of The Matter, which is irresistibly infectious thanks to another mighty chorus.
The album is not without flaws – most notably the passable Fame And Fortune – and it is possibly too polished for its own good. But there is no getting away from the fact that Anthems For Doomed Youth is a triumphant return; defying pretty much all the odds. It won’t be for everyone and there will be those who continue to look at Pete and Carl’s relationship with utter bemusement, but their songwriting prowess has ensured that the decade-long wait between albums has been more than worth it.