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Here’s the good news: Hamburg Demonstrations isn’t about Peter Doherty. Well, it is, but not the careless, rabble-rousing addict Doherty of The Libertines and Babyshambles, the one we once saw in the news every few weeks. Where his previous solo effort, 2009’s Grace/Wastelands, often returned to issues of drugs and fatigue, this album focuses more on love and momentum. Sure, there’s a few references to his past mistakes: “Sorry, Dad, for every good time that I had / they made it look so bad,” he sings on “Down For The Outing.” On “Birdcage,” the following track, he sings of finding a comfortable space between fame and routine: “Only love can heal the sickness of celebrity,” he says, soon subverting it with, “Only love can break the sickness of simplicity.” Like many in recovery, Doherty has defined his idea of love and is clinging to it with every ounce of his being.
And there’s plenty of love here, though it’s a wounded kind. There’s “Flags From The Old Regime,” an achingly heartfelt tribute to Amy Winehouse that Doherty has revamped since it first surfaced back in 2011. There’s also his response to the Paris terror attacks, “Hell To Pay At The Gates Of Heaven,” a song that addresses radicalized youth: “Come on, boys, choose your weapons / J-45 or an AK-47?” Its jaunty tone and ham-handed lyrics would be awkward if the message—art satiates passion better than militance—weren’t so potent. Its joyful, ramshackle instrumentation, however, was likely a highlight of Doherty’s set at the Bataclan last month, the venue’s first show since the attacks.
Those aren’t the only songs where Doherty gazes outward: piano-led opener “Kolly Kibber” is built around a character from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, while writer Anaïs Nin inspired the title to “A Spy In The House Of Love.” There’s traces of Doherty in each, but, perhaps due to its broad themes, Hamburg Demonstrations maintains an impersonal feel. And that’s not a bad thing.
It’s the arrangements, melodies, and atmosphere that feel nurtured, much more so than on Grace/Wastelands. A choir gives weight to “Kolly Kibber”; “Oily Boker” erupts into caustic noise before easing into a sweet, prolonged instrumental epilogue; and weepy strings add romance to “I Don’t Love Anyone (But You’re Not Just Anyone)” and lovely closer “She Is Far.” Hamburg Demonstrations is less successful in its sleazier moments. Doherty’s swagger is evident on “Birdcage” and “A Spy In The House Of Love,” but the former resonates as a touch too polished while the latter rambles along, never quite finding itself. “Down For The Outing,” on the other hand, rides on a sick, bluesy riff that, while infectious, nevertheless makes one wish it were being played by Carl Barât.
Doherty recorded the album in Hamburg, inspired by the Beatles’ formative years there in the early ’60s. The results, however, more recall their contemporaries: the Rolling Stones, the Who, and the softer side of the Velvet Underground. Had Doherty recorded these songs in the ’70s, one would’ve undoubtedly popped up in a Wes Anderson movie by now. Doherty’s too singular a presence to ever disappear in his music, but there is the sense here that he’s trying to get away from himself, to grasp at problems that loom larger than those in his personal life. It feels necessary, if not particularly memorable.