Monday, 23 March 2009
Peter Doherty - Grace/Wastelands
released 16 March 2009 on EMI
For the most part of the 21st Century, Pete(r) Doherty has been seen as something of a joke in the UK. He’s better known for his various misdemeanours than his recorded output, he spends time with people who are a negative influence, drugs are involved and he’s always wearing that stupid thing on top of his head. So far, so Winehouse, but the comparison only stretches so far. Whereas Amy Winehouse has had commercial success in spades, Doherty’s main trading commodity remains the car-crash that is his life. Winehouse’s last album, Back to Black, has sold nearly 3 million copies in the UK and has gone 9-times platinum. Doherty’s most recent effort as frontman of Babyshambles, Shotter’s Nation, managed a paltry five weeks on the album charts. Clearly, something needs to change.
There have been enough bright spots throughout his career to suggest that there is a genuine creative talent at work, if only he could rein himself in enough to let it stand out. On Grace/Wastelands, Doherty aims to shake off his reputation and let the music do the talking. In his own mind, he’s a wandering troubadour chronicling the tales of England and this is the persona he’s looking to burn into the nation’s collective psyche. In order to assist, he’s roped in Graham Coxon, another whose view of England is seemingly taken at times exclusively from The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society.
Opening track Arcady follows a well-trodden Doherty pattern; it’s a love letter to England, but an excessively romanticised England; the kind where girls are more likely to be found poring over a well-thumbed paperback than downing neon alcopops. Over jaunty acoustic guitar strumming and restrained percussion, Doherty sings “In Arcady life trips along/Pure and simple as the shepherd’s song.” It’s here that a peculiar quirk of Doherty’s voice comes to the fore, that while he can hold a tune, he often sounds like he’s singing with his tongue sticking out.
For Libertines die-hards, the most anticipated track would be A Little Death Around the Eyes, which was written with old bandmate Carl Barât. It’s a fairly dull song with a terrible opening line to the opening verse (“Your boyfriend’s name was Dave/I was bold and brave”) that producer Stephen Street does his best to rescue by swamping it with 1960s-style strings until it sounds like a Last Shadow Puppets B-side.
In fact, the first half of the album in general is fairly dull. Recent single, Last of the English Roses, is mildly diverting, but ultimately it’s lacking in any real substance. Just as you’re about to completely write off the entire album, Doherty throws something in from leftfield. Sweet By and By sounds as if it came from the 1920s jazz and swing era and although it’s not a perfectly executed pastiche, it’s sufficient to re-grab your attention. From that point onwards the album regains focus. Palace of Bone breaks into a Stranglers style bassline halfway through, and that’s before the best track of the lot, Sheepskin Tearaway. It’s a bluesy, heartfelt ballad, sparse and delicate and perfectly complemented by the vocals of trip-hop star Dot Allison. While the album may not be a total triumph, this song alone makes it worth hearing.
The phrase “return to form” is much overused in journalism circles and it would be little more than hyperbole to suggest that a return to form is what Grace/Wastelands is. It can’t touch the Libertines’ début, Up the Bracket, with its excitement, immediacy and production values that sound like it was recorded in a biscuit tin. However, it’s far superior to Babyshambles’ wretched first album, Down in Albion. Consider Grace/Wastelands more of a step in the right direction, a sign that maybe all is not lost and he can turn things around yet.