Few pop stars can say they’ve occupied quite the position Pete(r) Doherty holds in the public consciousness, where everyone knows his name but 99.99 per cent of them couldn’t whistle one of his tunes if they were offered a million pounds to do so.
This is, of course, the public’s loss as whatever else Doherty might be – or have been – he is a superb lyricist and songwriter, his fractured melodies and romantic dreams the ultimate in acoustic heroin chic, weaving tales of a world Brett Anderson dreamed about but never really paid the rent in.
Grace/Wastelands, his first official solo effort, picks up more or less where Babyshambles left off except that he has dusted down his worst excesses, taken a long hard look in the mirror and is sighing long and hard with a slightly broken heart.
If there is one sentence that can sum up the progression of Doherty’s solo album from his work with Babyshambles, it is this: the mood suggests that, for the first time, he might just have lost the hope in his hopeless romanticism. Fractured and vulnerable, the world has kicked back, harder than he expected and he’s no longer too doped up to ignore the pain.
Aided by Graham Coxon on guitar, most of Babyshambles (Adam Ficek on drums, Drew McConnell on bass, Mik Whitnall on guitar and even former collaborator Dot Allison on Sheepskin Tearaway) and with the Duke Strings adding chamber gravitas, Doherty is more together on Grace/Wastelands than he has ever been. Rather than dull his fire, this enables his embers to smoulder with a slow burn that realises a potential he has long been in danger of throwing away.
The sense of chaos has gone, and with it the sense of naivety that pervaded his earlier works. The ‘to hell with the world’ bravado has been knocked out of him and replaced with a genuine regret: Grace/Wastelands is the sound of his heart breaking and it’s beautiful. Fractured, vulnerable, gentle and hurt, his best qualities shine more brightly than ever without the fugue of an opium haze to dull them.
From the gentle acoustica of Arcady and I Am The Rain, to the Velveteen beat of Last of the English Roses (whose spoken word segments channel John Cale) through the between-the-wars music hall orchestration of 1939 Returning and The Sweet By And By, to the Babyshambles-at-their-best of A Little Death Around The Eyes and New Love Grows on Trees (with its wonderful chorus, If you’re still alive/ When you’re 25/ Shall I kill you/ Like you asked me to?) Stephen Street’s production puts the icing on the cake of a return to form Doherty never really lost.
Remember: he has always been brilliant. Sometimes your memory of it might have been dulled by the tabloid frenzy, or fudged by the lazy, half-finished production of Shotter’s Nation, but he has never been mediocre. Grace/Wastelands is Doherty scrubbed up, older and wiser and showing signs of regret for the past. It is a great album but then, so have they all been.