At the beginning of the Libertines’ short lifespan, Carl Barât and Peter Doherty had a motto, “It’s either top of the world or the bottom of canal.” Since the demise of their band, Doherty’s public persona has been in the tabloid guise of the latter. The dream of being one of the greatest British songwriters disappeared with by the appearance of this media-fueled alter ego. I thought it was just me but even Mr. Doherty is baffled by his dark sided twin whom he calls the evil one. He told NME, “I call him my evil twin…I don’t see it as me in a way, he’s a media creation…” I was fed up with the acts of this doppelganger, I started to lose hope that he would never find Albion and would end up with a sudden Death on the Stairs. His evil twin had been taking all the promise away from the creative side of one Peter Doherty. Now that’s he’s dumped Kate Moss, finally gone clean and excised his overindulgent entourage, has Peter actually curbed his bloody demons? By moving alone to Paris, it seems that the evil one has at last gone into (permanent?) hibernation.
All of his trialed turbulence may have had much to do with Doherty’s age and his raging exuberance. C’mon, Doherty wasn’t the only rocker to fall prey to addiction. Jeff Tweedy, Ryan Adams and Trent Reznor have all had their battle with excess but Doherty’s was more public. For years, police and judges tried everything to help Peter go clean but everyone knows you can’t force an addict to quit cold turkey. Yet it appears that Doherty has finally seen his light and it’s still not ready to go out, as of yet. I’ve been waiting all these years for this Peter Doherty to arrive. The talented poetic-singer, songwriter is finally starting to his spread his creative heights from Albion and beyond.
Babyshambles’ Shotter’s Nation was the first good step, but producer Stephen Street knew that Peter could go deeper. With his head clean of drugs, Doherty went back to some of his unreleased treasures and with the help from his friends like Street, Blur guitarist Graham Coxon, singer Dot Allison, Libertine lyricist Carl Barat and his carnales from the `shambles, Doherty’s solo album is a fucking delight. Half the time, I don’t know what the hell Peter is singing about, but just like the sub-cultured language in Irving Welsh’s Trainspotting, Doherty’s underground world of outcasts from the gutter longing for glimpses of love in the stars are simply fascinating. Case in point, the lyrics to “The Last of the English Roses”:
“She knows her Rodneys from her Stanleys
And her Kappas from her Reeboks
And her tit from her tat
And Winstons from her Enoks”
Who is Peter singing about? It doesn’t really matter, because his vocalized lyrics sound divine. You can hear a confidence in Doherty’s vocals that reign supreme throughout Grace/Wastelands. It’s as if overcoming his demons has lit Peter’s creative fire. He hasn’t sounded this alive since his days as a Libertine. We heard some shades of this in the last Babyshambles album, but songs like “New Love Grows on Trees” signal a new direction for Doherty, with the help of Coxon playing his best Marr-esque riffs, creating a Smiths-like template as a tribute to Peter’s favorite band (with whom Street had the honor of producing in their heyday of The Queen is Dead.
One shouldn’t expect Freewheeling acoustic demos like those circulating online post-Libertines and pre-Babyshambles. You probably would have sampled some of these songs in their early incarnations. Those rough drafts were sketches and like the work of any good writer, a song is never finished, it only keeps developing. One example of this is very atmospheric “A Little Death Around the Eyes,” co-written by Barat. I love the sweeping feel of this song; I imagine walking around the Seine in France. Doherty captures some the cultural feel on his new home city with the addition of the accordion on “Eyes.” You hear a lot of texture and depth on all the songs from Grace/Wastelands. There’s a vintage 1930s vibe on songs like swinging “Sweet By and By” and the aptly titled “1939 Returning.” I am awed with the creative direction Doherty is taking. It shows the versatile nature in Peter’s artistic arsenal. He can croon, seduce and even belt out rockers like “Fuck Forever.” But it appears that he wants to go past his “Fuck Forever” phase and move into a more eternal and seductive mode of vocal style. This is a winner to my ears. Grace/Wastelands is light years ahead of some of tracks heard on Down in Albion. Doherty is not only growing but also evolving as a songwriter.
My favorite song on Grace/Wastelands has an infamous history; “Sheepskin Tearaway” has the distinction of being the only Doherty original to be included in Judd Apatow’s 2005 film, The 40 Year Old Virgin. This version has vocals from Peter’s lovely ex, Dot Allison. But it’s that acoustic riff that I first heard on Virgin that’s most memorable. Allison’s and Doherty’s tender duet make this a romantic jazzy number that you’ll be singing in your daydreams.
I would love to call Grace/Wastelands a masterpiece but it’s not, “Broken Love Song” just doesn’t do it for me. To me it seems out of place on the album. This is the only song where Doherty’s vocals sound drowsy and unmoving. I don’t see why Doherty couldn’t have left off “Broken” and replaced it with “Through the Looking Glass.” Doherty eliminated this last minute Libertines original for the inclusion of the very personal “I Am The Rain.” I speculate that “Glass” was slice of Peter’s past and “Rain” is more of a poetic manifesto of who Doherty really is right now. Personifying himself as a symbol for rain, Peter sees himself as someone whose life and words have become inspirational and controversial. Although I really love the way “Rain” ends with a chorus of harmonies and sped-up melodies, I would have loved to have seen the guitar heavy “Glass” included on the album. Coxon’s riffs really shine on this song that has been unfortunately relegated to b-side status on the album’s first single, “The Last of the English Roses.”
For some reason, one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Jeff Tweedy refuses to understand why some of us cherish the music of Peter Doherty. All I can suggest to him is to listen to the magnificent wonder of Grace/Wastelands. There is a beauty and pain in his ever-evolving life, reflected on this impressive first solo album. It’s good to have you back Mr. Doherty, let’s keep the evil one inside the guitar case as you reach for the top of the globe. Cheers, lad!