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“I’m really inside these new songs. I believe in them.”
So says Peter Doherty of the 11 tracks that make up his new solo album, ‘Hamburg Demonstrations,’ to be released on December 2 via BMG/Clouds Hill. A sprawling, eclectic collection, the album might just be the most wistful and warm thing Doherty has ever put out. It’s certainly his most intimate official release.
Take opener ‘Kolly Kibber,’ for instance, which references Graham Greene’s iconic Brighton Rock character over pretty acoustic guitars, before a glorious soul-infused breakdown surprises and delights two-thirds through. There’s a newly-recorded version of ‘Flags From The Old Regime’ too, Doherty’s tribute to his late friend Amy Winehouse. Now featuring delicate slide guitars, jazzy percussion and a lilting string section, the song finally seems to have realised its full potential.
Elsewhere, ‘Birdcage’ features the vocals of Suzie Martin and sounds a little like a long lost St Etienne classic – if that band had been reared on rock’n’roll rather than dancefloor hedonism. ‘A Spy In The House Of Love’ is playfully antagonistic, while two separate versions of new single ‘I Don’t Love Anyone (But You’re Not Just Anyone)’ differ wildly, offering a glimpse into the mind of Doherty the songwriter, and the processes he uses to hone his craft.
For Libertines fans, closing track ‘She Is Far’ will be of huge interest. Originally written by a teenage Doherty before his first band ever even released a record, the track has been bootlegged online for over 15 years, but never recorded in a studio before now. Thrillingly, it might just be the most whimsical thing Doherty has ever released, taking in “blues and greys and greens across the river”, “photographs in paper bags” and blood-spilled monuments over London’s lost rivers. Cathartic and soothing, it’s right up there with his and Wolfman’s 2004 single ‘For Lovers,’ and ‘You’re My Waterloo’ from last year’s Libertines album ‘Anthems For Doomed Youth.’ Certainly, it’s beatific grace showcases a glistening, folk-inspired side to Doherty that many casual listeners will have been previously unaware of.
And that’s the overall vibe of this record: Peter Doherty, one of the UK’s most talented and treasured songwriters, seems to finally be at ease with himself and his music.
It had been five long years since the release of his first solo album, the hugely acclaimed ‘Grace/Wastelands,’ when he met Johann Scheerer of Hamburg’s Clouds Hill Studios in early-2014. With plans to reunite The Libertines underway, Doherty was keen to record a number of tracks he felt weren’t right for either that band or Babyshambles, so he literally moved into the studio complex and set to work with Scheerer, who’s previously produced the likes of Bosnian Rainbows and one-time Bad Seed/Gallon Drunk man, James Johnston.
Craving a small, no-nonsense setup and working almost in secret – there were fewer distractions, that way, Doherty reasoned – slowly, what we now know as the ‘Hamburg Demonstrations’ album started to take shape. The atmosphere was relaxed throughout, with some songs recorded with “kids from around the studio” playing alongside Doherty.
He was also only too happy for Scheerer to have a say creatively too. “There's that song ‘Down For The Outing,’” Doherty explains. “I've had that for a while now, but it's incredible how it sounds. I was worried about the songs like that – the ones people know – but Johann's made it sound like a brand new song.”
Continuing to return to Clouds Hill whenever The Libertines were on downtime, Doherty kept writing too. The track ‘Hell To Pay At The Gates Of Heaven’ was born in late 2015, and it might just be the most important song he has ever written. Played live throughout the past year, it’s already picked up an almost mythical status among fans, with people instantly taking to its jaunty, steadfast melody. Musically, the songs recalls the timeless sway of The Pogues, with subtle hints of Dexys Midnight Runners’ classic 1985 album ‘Don’t Stand Me Down.’ But the subject matter is something far more personal to Doherty.
The key lyric, Doherty says, is as straight-up as he’s ever got, referencing John Lennon’s acoustic guitar of choice, the Gibson J-45, and stating: “Come on boys, choose your weapons / J-45 or an AK-47?”
Having lived on and off, in and around Paris for much of the last decade, Doherty is due to kick off a French tour by playing two solo gigs at the re-opened Bataclan venue in mid-November.
Always a man happiest when holding a guitar or a pen, you feel that with ‘Hamburg Demonstrations’ we finally get a little bit closer to finding out who Peter Doherty really is. It’s a delicate album, full of surprises, warmth and melody. It’s an album that almost goads you into getting lost inside it, like The Velvet Underground’s third, or Blaze Foley’s skewiff, lo-fi cult classics (both were key inspirations). And when you do, it’s not at all difficult to really believe in the songs – and the man who created them.