'Hamburg Demonstrations': Pete Doherty muses thoughtfully on love, loss and war

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Peter Doherty has long been one of Britain’s most creative, poetic and genuinely original songwriters, though his talent has frequently been overshadowed by very publicised battles with drug addiction and the law. From his beginnings in the sweaty gigs in Camden bars to the main stages of Reading and Glastonbury, the gentle and whimsical lilt of his writing, the cracked charm of his soft crooning voice, has spoken to thousands of disillusioned young rockers. His music was for the idealists, the dreamers: the kids trapped in the indifferent 21st century who never got to see The Clash or The Smiths. After some admittedly questionable output both with The Libertines and Babyshambles, Doherty has rediscovered his magic on Hamburg Demonstrations, his first solo record in over 7 years, and provides a record that is simultaneously provocative and introspective.

‘Kolly Kibber’ is a bookish, playful acoustic jam. Doherty agonises over his mortality, worrying he will “end up like Kolly Kiber”, a murdered character from Graham Greene’s classic novel Brighton Rock. Literary references continue into ‘Down For The Outing’ that cleverly alludes to Stevie Smith’s 'Not Waving But Drowning'. The tempo increases on ‘Birdcage’, though the vocal harmonies feel misplaced, at worst clumsy. ‘Hell to Pay at the Gates of Heaven’, meanwhile, is a particular highlight, and rumbles along like an outtake from Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. It decries the modern “Armageddon”, a world falling apart at the seams. It is a world that chooses the “AK-47” over the “J-45” (John Lennon’s famous guitar), and the juxtaposition between the liberation of music and the perils of war is sustained intelligently throughout the song.

For me, the album centres on the utterly beautiful and moving ‘Flags of the Old Regime’: Doherty’s tribute to deceased soulmate Amy Winehouse. He finds her in a moment of crisis, “stuck behind the door” and “chewing off your jaw”. Doherty’s analysis is sharp and salient, referencing the “fame they stoned you with” that exacerbated Winehouse’s situation towards the end of her life. He watches her, dead-eyed, standing “in front of the whole world” and singing “songs” that does not “feel” anymore. The song’s rawness, its authenticity, transcends the kind of melodrama associated with the tribute song, and examines with unflinching honesty the dark tragedy of addiction: the image of the girl shivering behind the door, a door she closed to prevent the intrusion of a fame-obsessed, narcissistic world.

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The album loses it’s way somewhat here, and it baffles slightly why the slightly average “I Don’t Love Anyone (But You’re Not Just Anyone)” appears twice in different (but not that different) incarnations. The quality is picked up, however, by the gorgeous closer ‘She Is Far’. Doherty walks through “winter London parks” with a past lover, observing the decayed urban landscape of “monuments for blood spilt in foreign lands” and hinting gloomily towards his own guilt (“it’s on our hands”). As time fades, their love is reduced to “Photographs in paper bags” that litter the city. London responds to their sadness (“the city flows with tears”), and Doherty somehow manages to conjure the immensity of the melancholia that lost love can evoke. Doherty is one of the most effective songwriters at capturing this painful and elusive feeling of romantic nostalgia and the solitude of reflecting on a relationship, as he showcased so poignantly in tracks such ‘For Lovers’. For all of his grandiose romantic visions, he is capable of undercutting his sentimentalism with darkness, possessing an ability to gesture towards an icier reality that places him above his peers, as it did for Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell before him.

The music, a familiar set of gentle acoustic chords interspersed with trebly Telecaster chops and laid-back beats, does not thrill but forms a useful backdrop for Doherty’s intricate lyrical tales. Production from Hamburg-based Johann Scheerer is meaningfully sparse, particularly on quieter tracks, and lets the songs do the talking. All in all, it amounts to an album that, while dull and meandering in places, provides powerful evidence of Doherty’s considerable talent as a poet and a musician. For a long-time fan of his, it is the long-awaited middle finger to the philistine tabloid journalists so keen to convince the world that this uniquely talented songwriter was yet another overhyped, overindulged ‘failure’.

(Image Rights: Kris Krüg)

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MusicDaniel KeaneComment