Peter Doherty has a reputation that precedes him.
Integral to the mid-’00s garage rock revival with his band The Libertines, Doherty experienced critical praise for his first album, Up the Bracket, and a general appreciation for their eponymous second record. Then his life spiralled. After multiple legal run-ins, a substance-fuelled and religiously tabloid-documented relationship with Kate Moss, and the loss of his place in The Libertines, Doherty created a new band for himself and called it Babyshambles … who somehow managed an even longer record for debauchery, and dissolved before Doherty checked himself into rehab.
Doherty’s latest release, Hamburg Demonstrations, is his first solo album after he completed his rehabilitation in early 2015. The album follows The Libertine’s acclaimed Anthems for Doomed Youth (2015), but the spotlight shines heavy on the man alone. Poignantly, the mid-record track “Flags from the Old Regime” — which was written for Amy Winehouse after her death — chronicles this pressure by looking outward. The track had already been released by Doherty (as “Flags of the Old Regime”) in a less produced and more emotionally raw single format, but the reinclusion on the album makes for a suggestion of context.
Despite this, the album is sometimes shockingly bright. Doherty opens with “Kolly Kibber”‘s jangly guitar line that evokes a sort of tropical ambiance, and moves into the romantic territory of the sugary “I Don’t Love Anyone (but You’re Not Just Anyone) V2” — and V1, for that matter, which is the same song with less effects, strings, and a lot more in-character rock’n’roll.
As we swing through the lyrically familiar “Down for the Outing”, it becomes clear that perhaps fresh is not what works best for Peter Doherty. The track reinvigorates his penchant for British history (it could be noted that the word “Albion” is not present on Hamburg Demonstrations, though “Arcadia” plays into “Oily Boker”) and the passion for the subject matter brings the unity that the album craved. “Hell to Pay at the Gates of Heaven” is the album’s peak. A memorial to the shootings at the Bataclan, Doherty finds a Libertines-esque energy and runs with it. The upbeat Americana musicality is a tonal subversion, but the subversion links straight to the emotional root. The track is lasting, but the album is uneven. “The Whole World Is Our Playground” teeters between heaviness and sweet romanticism with genre experimentation that could work, if Doherty just pushed it further, risked more. The slow and soft “She is Far” closes the album and with a lull: a little bored, and perhaps a dash underwhelmed.
As a whole, this album doesn’t live up to any of those released by The Libertines. At its best it’s on par with the filler tracks on Anthems for Doomed Youth. At its worst, it’s the grating uneven duet of “Birdcage”. But Hamburg Demonstrations is a stronger release than Doherty’s first solo effort in 2009, and it may even exceed Babyshambles’ 2007 record Shotter’s Nation. This is not his worst work, and it will not be his last. Likely, Hamburg Demonstrations is a shot at proving his emotional range at a time when the world seems hell-bent on remembering him for the “Drug abuse and legal problems” section of his Wikipedia page.