The Shape of Pop to Come #3

When the new Libertines album, Anthems for Doomed Youth, was announced, I was skeptical at best. Pete Doherty was extolling a new found sobriety from the confines of a Thai rehabilitation center, surrounded by his bandmates. The group promised a new tour and a return to form. Considering it was the same spiel from 2010, when they reunited for a triumphant run of shows only to implode amid Doherty’s drug habit — detailed on the documentary There Are No Innocent Bystanders — there was more than enough reason for aprehension on the part of fans. However, they seem to have come through on their promise.

Last night, Gunga Din, the band’s first single in 11 years, was released. It’s pretty good. Longtime fans might bemoan the lack of that trademark dirty sound, courtesy of Mick Jones’ production in the first two albums — the new album is produced by Stephen Street — but what really separated the Libertines from the rest of the pack was their lyricism. Case in point: how many bands do you know would comeback from a 11-year hiatus with a single namechecking a Rudyard Kipling poem to illustrate their flaws in character?

Gunga Din is a poem which tells the story of Indian water-carrier for British troops. Even though Gunga Din was constantly abused by the soldiers, he was still loyal to them. When the soldier narrator is shot during battle, Gunga Din saves his life but is killed in the process. The narrator later dies and is sent to hell, partially due to his terrible treatment of Gunga Din. Wishing for a drink of water from his former servant, he laments, “Though I’ve belted you and flayed you, By the livin’ Gawd that made you, You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”

The poem’s end is coincidentally the song’s main hook. Pete Doherty writes some of the most frank verses about his addiction, and gives the impression that, when talking of Gunga Din, he might be talking not just of the people immediately around him who suffered through his nasty habits, but the fans as well. They stood by him through thick and thin, subpar album after subpar album. Even when he lit up a crack pipe during an NME interview and blew a cloud of smoke into the reporters face, fans stood by him, wishing he got his shit together. That’s loyalty.

That loyalty seems to be paying off. Although one cannot expect that the new album reaches the height of the band’s classic material, the simple fact that there IS a new Libertines album, especially in a year that has been atrocious for British indie, might be a reason to be cheerful.

Anthems for Doomed Youth will be released on Sep 4 by Virgin EMI.

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