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Album reviews: The Libertines and The Black Keys

‘All Quiet on the Eastern Esplanade’ is easily The Libertines’ most ambitious and expansive record to date  (Ed Cooke)
‘All Quiet on the Eastern Esplanade’ is easily The Libertines’ most ambitious and expansive record to date (Ed Cooke)

The LibertinesAll Quiet on the Eastern Esplanade

★★★★☆

One ventures into a new Libertines album in much the same way one would onto a rickety rope bridge over a ravine. If any indulgence has been given to Peter Doherty’s time-worn tendency to mumble off into aimless dub or ska jams, too wasted to catch up with any tunes he might glimpse in the distance, the whole fragile edifice is liable to collapse into disaster.

Thankfully the band’s fourth album – their first in nine years, part-recorded in the relatively settled environment of their hotel and studio HQ on Margate’s seafront – has been made with clarity in mind, which comes with pros and cons. With Doherty far richer in voice, coherent in songwriting and restricting his more feral impulses to splashes of caterwauling backing noise, he and Carl Barat have been able to craft their most cogent album since their 2002 debut Up the Bracket.

The tracks that set out to revive that record’s untrammelled elan, however – tales of hedonism hampered by age or poverty, such as the singles “Run Run Run” and “Oh S***” – are weighed down by production seemingly designed to stop the record running away with itself. Here, Barat and Doherty sound more like parents in the riot, standing by the box of molotovs and minding the coats.

The record fares better when it frames songs about post-Brexit Albion, as seen through the prism of their new Margate environs, in styles more worldly than their original speed-blitzed indie pop. “Mustang” portrays an alcoholic Kentish housewife in shades of Nashville-esque glam rock, complete with dusty organ and cowbell beat. “Merry Old England” sympathetically addresses the small-boat immigrants washed up onto Margate’s dilapidated streets in the soul noir tones of mid-period Talk Talk, and “Shiver” confronts the death of Elizabeth II, and where it leaves us, sounding like Foals gone Detroit house.

Variously embracing fado, jazzy whiskey-bar blues and tensile, grandiose strings, ... Eastern Esplanade is easily The Libertines’ most expansive and ambitious record. “Songs They Never Play on the Radio” and bassist John Hassell’s “Man With the Melody” aspire to orchestral ballad sophistication, while “Night of the Hunter” even weaves a haunting tale of a murderer in the style of – no, really – Ennio Morricone re-scoring Swan Lake. A reliable passage, leading to unexpected new territory. MB

Patrick Carney, left, and Dan Auerbach, of The Black Keys, perform at the 2024 Love Rocks benefit concert in NYC for God’s Love We Deliver, at the Beacon Theatre in New York (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
Patrick Carney, left, and Dan Auerbach, of The Black Keys, perform at the 2024 Love Rocks benefit concert in NYC for God’s Love We Deliver, at the Beacon Theatre in New York (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

The Black KeysOhio Players

★★★★☆

“Have I told you lately that I love you?” Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach asks on the rock duo’s new album, Ohio Players. “Well if I didn’t, then I’m sorry.” This sentiment, expressed at the heart of the record on a cover of William Bell’s “I Forgot to Be Your Lover”, appears to reflect not only a moment of romantic reconciliation but a period of newfound harmony for the band.

In the 20 or so years since they released their debut, Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have celebrated Grammy wins, critically adored albums, and sold-out tours. They’ve survived a burnout caused by, as Auerbach put it in a 2022 interview, the pair of them becoming “spoiled little b****es”.

If this record is anything to go by, though, The Black Keys are riding high on one of the most inspired spells of their career to date. Gone is the jittery, fractious energy of their 2019 album Let’s Rock. And there is little of the paranoia that crept into their 2010 breakthrough Brothers.

Instead, we find the duo romping lustily around the scuzz-laden “Please Me (Till I’m Satisfied)” and paying playful homage to Seventies funk maestros Ohio Players on “Paper Crown” – melting into Nineties rap with a little help from Lil Noid and Juicy J. (Extra points for the guitar interpolation of “Gangsta’s Paradise”.) Their rock’n’roll friends, from Beck to Noel Gallagher, are on hand to lend the album a rabble-rousing tone. Ohio Players sounds like a house party where the whiskey is flowing and the record player never stops spinning. ROC