Wasted Bard’s Return to Grace

Peter (formerly Pete) Doherty climbed to fame through equal parts musical chops and tabloid drivel, and consequently, has drawn a rather mixed following. Some call him an Albion prince, a romantic bard, a brilliant poet whose acts of self-destruction are merely the artistic gestures of a suffering genius. Others, however, view the former Libertine as something of a useless, strung-out, washed-up, crack-addled brute. And while, with Mr. Doherty’s countless arrests, stints in rehab, drug-fueled outbursts, bizarre Youtube uploads, and breakups with a Ms. Moss, it’s tempting to side with the latter party; there is something undeniably endearing about Peter. It lies in his vocals, always delivered so lovingly despite his not being a particularly adept singer, his unembarrassed devotion to long-forgotten romanticism, and his reckless, self-loathing, but painfully vulnerable presence. On Doherty’s fist solo album, Grace/Wasteland, he looks back at the past few years and, head hung low, calls himself swine. While the album borders mediocrity in terms of musical quality, Doherty exudes enough vulnerability to almost educe sympathy from the gossip slingers themselves.

Doherty shines on acoustic lullabies, like the opening track “Arcadie”, a simple guitar and vocal romp alluding to the mythical utopia. His guttural and often tuneless voice fits the pleasant finger-picking like a well-worn folksong, yowling lovingly through a bittersweet tale of everyday life in Arcadia, where “life trips along pure and simple as the shepherd’s song”.

“Last of the English Roses” is a nostalgic tribute to the girl who “knows her Winstons from her Enochs” and dances the tutti-frutti. The lyrics are classically Doherty; dreamy, wistful, and with literary allusions aplenty. On this song especially, Doherty concedes to overproduction, and what could have been a lovely ballad now runs amuck with strange snake-charming horns and closes with what seems to be a discarded Run DMC backbeat over which he sort of raps – in French.

B-side, “I am the Rain” may in fact be one of the album’s prettiest tracks, a haunting, mostly acoustic, medieval ode to precipitation. That is, the song is truly lovely before an out-of-place, warbling backing vocalist’s wail pierces the song, interrupting the gentle strumming and generally mucking things up, perhaps explaining this lovely song’s B-Side listing.

Doherty displays a large talent for writing evocatively personal ballads, like “New Love Grows on Trees”, a chilling song about a death pact with former band mate Carl Barat, “Sheepskin Tearaway”, an allegorical tale of Doherty’s addictions and “A Little Death around the Eyes”, an ashamed junkie’s penitence for a debauched lifestyle.

Many of the songs included in Grace/Wastelands are reworkings of older Doherty-penned songs, but the album also contains several surprises, pleasant and otherwise. “Sweet By and By”, a piano-led swing ditty, adds a welcome new dimension to a largely Britpop inspired album. Perhaps most out of place on an album largely about drugs and English pride is “1939 Returning” a mildly pretty, but strange song about the “motherland and the Third Reich”.

Stephen Street, who produced Doherty’s band Babyshambles’ Shotters Nation, returns for G/W, but this time trades jarring electric riffs for chamber music strings. Overproduction is perhaps this album’s direst detriment, as slathered on layers detract from the severe vulnerability of Doherty’s lyrics and vocals. Doherty is at his best with just acoustic strumming and finger picking, provided by Blur’s Graham Coxon, and sounds lost and out of place beneath overly layered tracks. Additions like strange, whispery backing vocals, seventies AM radio drum loops, and generic piano and string supplements hardly seem necessary on an album based around raw authenticity.

Grace/Wastelands, despite its flaws, is a raw and charming collection of pretty and varied music; a recovering addict’s testament of his own worth, written as proof to himself as much as its recipients. In the long run though, Doherty hasn’t proved much on this album. To loyalists, this album seems an overt confirmation of their lanky hero as a brilliant versifier and musical genius. And those disinclined towards Doherty will call this album the creation of a wasted, whiny, mucky swine, for whom they have only slightly heightened sympathy.

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