Pete Doherty and Carl Barât’s volatile relationship imploded at the peak of their success in 2004. As the Libertines return with new album Anthems for Doomed Youth, can the old friends win people over once again?
ver cocktails and cigarettes in the Sir John Betjeman Suite at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London, Pete Doherty and Carl Barât of the Libertines are talking about when they were happiest. On this point, at least, they agree.
“The dream was working when we climbed up to the top of this old hospital building and the sun rose over Whitechapel, and we talked about what we’d one day achieve,” Barât remembers. “That’s when things were as good as they’ll ever be.”
This was in the late 1990s, before they had a record deal or were even a real band. “We’d get up on empty buildings and play to imaginary crowds, and then we’d go out and demand that people listen,” Doherty says wistfully. “The things we’d plot and sing about, they weren’t real. But if you write about them enough, they eventually become true. By the time you’re living what you wrote about, the kid who wrote it, he’s long gone.” He catches himself. “That’s a bit negative, isn’t it?”
The Libertines’ first album in 11 years has the unimprovably apt title Anthems for Doomed Youth. The two frontmen always felt as though they were in decline – even when they seemed to be thriving – so when they disintegrated in a mess of hard drugs and acrimony in December 2004, after just two-and-half years in the public eye, it felt like a prophecy fulfilled.
It was still sad, though. Unlike most of their contemporaries, the Libertines offered not just music, but a worldview: one that was strange, funny, exhilarating and sad. They seemed to inhabit a fantastical private realm (“the good ship Albion” or “the Arcadian dream”) and converse in the style of a flatshare sitcom written by Galton and Simpson, with help from Pinter. Barât thinks they gave fans “some kind of ideology, some sense of belonging”. When the band went down, so did a remarkable friendship and a shared ideal. They’ve since made eight albums as solo artists or frontmen (Doherty by himself and with Babyshambles, Barât with Dirty Pretty Things and the Jackals) but none have the wayward magic of the first two Libertines albums – or indeed the new one.
Barât, 37, compares their return to when “they find an old flat in Paris that nobody’s been in since 1910 and it’s all still there”. Doherty, 36, is more dramatic. “It’s like we’ve died and been buried and come back.”
It’s cheering to see how much of their chemistry has survived. Within minutes of Doherty’s belated arrival, they are sipping Brit Spritz cocktails with arms entwined like bride and groom, and disagreeing over whether the view from the hotel reminds them of Brief Encounter or The End of the Affair. Still, time has magnified their differences. Despite having the air of a dissolute thespian, Barât is a settled father-of-two who lives in north London. Doherty, who lives with his girlfriend in Paris, keeps reality on a longer leash. Drug-free since January, he has a startled aspect, like a creature that’s been underground too long and is struggling to adjust to the light. He calls to mind a lyric from Can’t Stand Me Now: “Cornered, the boy kicked out at the world / The world kicked back a lot fucking harder.” Whereas Barât favours evocative one-liners (an online comment section is “an asylum for the sanctimonious”), Doherty is a catastrophiser who swings between whimsical digressions and wrenching, wide-eyed soliloquies.
I tell them I think the new album’s great, and they look surprised.
“That’s reassuring,” Barât says. He worries that people see them as “this fucking Carry On couple, boring us again”.
“We’ve won people over once before, in a different world, and they’ve come back to that place now – but what about people who have never been there?” frets Doherty. “Is it going to spark them off? Can you start from zero in 2015?”
You can read the rest of this article at the Guardian