What became of the likely lads? That has been the question on everyone’s lips for most of the past decade and it was generally agreed that it was better not to ask at all. While Pete Doherty kept the tabloids in business with his drug-fuelled and increasingly nefarious behaviour, Carl Barat muddled along releasing a couple of lacklustre solo records to dwindling interest – the famed Arcadian dream that the band’s mythology had been built upon had never seemed further away. This might have been the end for lesser bands, but thanks to the group’s fervent fan base, interest in a Libertines reunion never disappeared entirely. A run of reunion dates last year led to the band decamping to Thailand earlier this year to work on their long-delayed, make-or-break third record Anthems for Doomed Youth.
Luckily, it doesn’t take them long to get back in the swing of things. The album starts off in rollicking good fashion with ‘Barbarians’ – a snarling rocker that wouldn’t have felt out of place on either of their earlier records and sees both Pete and Carl in fine form vocally. Lead single ‘Gunga Din’, a song that divided critics upon its release, arrives with a ska-tinged riff that might sound dated on first impression but all concerns are swept away as the rueful, bittersweet refrain washes over with all of the band joining in on harmonies. ‘Fame and Fortune’ follows in similar fashion and lays to bed any fears that the boys in the band might have lost their knack for a lilting melody and a ragged chorus.
One of the worries when word broke that the Libertines were recording new material was that it would be bulked out with their considerable wealth of B-sides, castoffs and unfinished demos. Thankfully, this is not the case. ‘You’re My Waterloo’, is the sole older song that appears and is also one of the clear standouts. A plaintive piano ballad that features Pete Doherty’s best vocal since ‘For Lovers’ more than a decade ago. “I’m so glad we know just what to do and everyone’s going to be happy,” Doherty sings sadly at the song’s climax.
While musically, the Libertines manage to retain most of their charm, lyrically, the duo explore darker terrain than even their self-titled second record The Libertines – an album that essentially captured the band’s implosion. The aforementioned ‘Gunga Din’ has the pair taking a long hard look at themselves in the mirror while ‘Belly of the Beast’ sees Doherty confronting his “cracked-up, smacked-up” past. The years of hard living have certainly taken their toll on the pair and there’s nothing here with the unabashed optimism and self-belief of a ‘Don’t Look Back into the Sun’ or a ‘Time for Heroes’.
Rumours of the band breaking new ground with the record also seem for the most part to have been exaggerated. While there is certainly more variety than their first two records, the experimentation that had been cited in interviews leading up to the album’s release seems largely absent. The production – handled by pop savant Jake Gosling – might be a little cleaner than Mick Jones’ work (not that it would have been hard, mind) but any fears that the Ed Sheeran producer would whitewash the Libertines famously ramshackle sound prove to be unfounded.
Things get a little murky towards the back end of the album and tracks such as ‘the Milkman’s Horse’ and closer ‘Dead for Love’ don’t leave much of an impression, but crucially the key ingredients – the romanticism, the chemistry and, most importantly, the songwriting – remain chiefly intact. The Libertines were in the last chance saloon with this record and have come up trumps. Close your eyes and it’s almost like the good old days.