Pete Doherty’s solo debut, Grace/Wastelands, sounds exactly like a fat Elvis record or a 1970s/'80s Frank Sinatra record. It’s the sound of a once domineering (some may even say generation-defining) performer raising his hands and deciding to get by as a character-less crooner making money off what he once was. In the cases of Elvis and Sinatra, they had a few decades on top before becoming walking punch lines. Doherty’s done the same in the span of seven years.
Grace/Wastelands is ostensibly the most involved Doherty has been in recording an album since (presumably) the Libertines’ debut, Up the Bracket. He’s reportedly quit the junk and decided to refocus himself fully onto music. The fact that he recorded the final Libertines album (2004’s The Libertines) and put out two mostly terrible albums as Babyshambles without really doing much besides sporadically showing up to record vocals makes that not exactly a high hurdle.
New collaborator Graham Coxon, he of Blur, and second-time producer Stephen Street (who produced Babyshambles’ sophomore album, Shotter’s Nation, along with albums by Blur, the Smiths, and others), apparently decided that what Doherty was missing on those Babyshambles albums wasn’t decent hooks, riffs that measured up to his old band, or any cohesion. No, Street and Coxon decided Doherty needed 12 tracks of acoustic pop sheen that would allow him to play the boho poet that he’s considered himself since before he started shooting up. And it essentially exposes Doherty’s biggest weaknesses: his trite lyrics, his less than perfect voice, and his inability to sound interested in anything he’s doing not under the title "Libertines."
Main single “Last of the English Roses” is the set’s highlight. Its sub-Gorillaz folk-pastiche provide the album with its lone musical fireworks with Doherty hiccuping the lyrics over the on/off switch acoustic guitars like he needs a glass of water. It’s more languid than of Doherty’s past successes, but the guy has slowed down, after all.
From there, things progressively get worse. “1939 Returning” finds Doherty trying to draw some connection between 2009 and 1939 that never makes sense (apparently reading TV Guide and getting bombed line up to him). The rote tale of “Salome” (she of New Testament fame) is recast as a dig track at some undetermined woman, and Doherty fails to provide the vocal pyrotechnics that the swaying orchestral-leaning music on “Broken Love Song” and “New Love Grows on Trees” demand (although, “New Love” does feature some of Doherty’s most coherent lyrics, which are about him pleading with an old flame over whether or not they should carry out the suicide pact they promised each other).
But no offense is greater than “Sweet By and By,” which has Doherty emoting over a piano lounge backing track like he’s a bit player trying to get into the pants of one of the cast members on Sex and the City. It would make sense as a parody, but considering Doherty spends most of the album presenting himself as a poet, it seems like an elaborate joke on Pete and/or us.
Doherty may be in the best health of his professional career these days, but Grace/Wastelands marks the worst health of his music. On past, post-Libertine releases Doherty, however momentarily, showed flashes of the energetic and ruthless songcrafting ability that made him a vital part of the two-headed monster that was him and Carl Barat. Grace/Wastelands doesn’t show that even for a minute. It’s the worst album in a career that’s now got a 3:2 awful-album ratio.