I was 14 and hadn’t discovered the Libertines by the time they split in 2004, but a year later I became one of those fans: I bought into their narrative, acquired a trilby hat, thought lyrically they were up there with Eliot, Yeats, Shakespeare and whoever else you want to throw to the top of the bookshelf. I wanted to live inside their albums.
Eleven barren years have passed, and on September 11 their comeback album Anthems for Doomed Youth will be released. Most of those fans have moved on from the good old days, so this is probably as difficult a return as possible. The tightrope between genuine comeback and kitschy tribute is not easy to tread, so what can we decipher from the Libertines’ second coming so far?
First impressions arrived with mixed feelings towards Gunga Din. The first four lines – our inauguration into Albion V2 – sung by Pete in that trademark toddler wail which sounds like he doesn’t quite have the motor skills to control his own lips, go:
“Woke up again to my chagrin
Getting sick and tired of feeling sick and tired again
I tried to write, because I’ve got the right
To make it look as if I'm doing something with my life”
Unfortunately his aged, self-loathing showmanship is reaching out a hand once more saying “I’m here, let me sing to you about my disheveled life again, pity me, fawn over me, I’m bent over for you.” It's an uninspiring opening to say the least.
The video is a cause for concern too; a painfully artificial orgasm of what The Libertines need to grow out of to make a proper go of this revival. There is one cringeworthy moment (1:48) where Carl sings “I can’t help it, I’m a bastard in the morning”, and Pete mouths “It’s true.” It looks too contrived to be believable, a carefully planned theatrical performance of “Look at him like you love him, don’t just palm his shoulder, lean into him.” It smacks of the mind of a great, marketing supercomputer that only understands humans through the prism of nostalgia. And they haven’t changed their clothes in 11 years.
It all seems a bit too forced. We had our commemoration to the old themes when they reunited for Reading and Leeds in 2010 and Hyde Park last year. It’s time to taste something new. And Gunga Din does offer something new, but perhaps something that will not be warmly welcomed by those fans if it shoots through the whole album: all three appearances of the chorus are exactly the same recording. Their raw, strident, do-it-in-one sound is their trademark but here, Jake Gosling’s overproduction ruins the chaos that the video tries to reprise.
All in all a confused introduction. Luckily, elsewhere lies more hope.
Barbarians was introduced on a live Radio 1 session in which their chemistry is obvious. Pete mischievously twangs a guitar mid interview, which is balanced by a delicately agitated Carl trying to keep it all together. Gary and John are more prominent here too, and the interview being shared four ways rather than two feels like a much needed rejuvenation. The song sounds much more like what this Libertines album should be; a return to choppy, rhythmic guitars with an altogether tighter sound. Plus an unobtrusive reappearance of Pete’s career spanning flirtation with ska that, he actually handles quite well (remember Babyshambles – I Wish?)
On title track Anthems for Doomed Youth we are treated to Carl’s France [the final track on debut album, Up The Bracket] voice, which sounds almost like it skips the chest, throat and mouth and comes directly from his lungs, unadulterated, all at once detached and objective yet terrifically emotional. It is not an immediately loveable song, but after a few listens the gentle, twinkling guitars wouldn’t leave my head.
In a recent interview with the Guardian, Carl compared their return to “finding an old flat in Paris that nobody’s been in since 1910 and it’s all still there.” Fair enough, but that flat is going to need some renovation to keep it functional. Let’s hope we are greeted with a record that tactfully treads water between the new production values of Gunga Din and the vociferous noises of old without wading too far in either direction. Early reviews have been mixed, but then again, they are probably not written by those fans, are they?