Grace/Wastelands is credited to Peter Doherty, not Pete, and that extra R isn't just an affectation. The formal version of his name fits his first solo album's reflective viewpoint -- Doherty turned 30 shortly before it was released, and its maturity feels like a conscious, and necessary, retreat from the chaos surrounding his music with Babyshambles. Even the title Grace/Wastelands feels like a slightly more grown-up take on the wordplay he's used to find that fine line between poetic beauty and destruction since the Libertines. This is easily the best-sounding album Doherty has been involved with, neither self-consciously "raw" nor overly polished; it lets the music be as simple or as elaborate as it needs to be. Doherty reunited with Shotter's Nation producer Stephen Street for this set, and Street recruited Blur's Graham Coxon to play guitar on almost every track here. Coxon and Doherty are an inspired pairing, not just because Coxon is a brilliant guitarist, but because he's also struggled with substance abuse (though he was never as flamboyantly self-destructive as Doherty) and been in a band deemed at one time the saviors of British music. It feels like more was expected of Doherty on Grace/Wastelands than on his previous projects, or perhaps he expected more of himself: his clear-eyed singing and playing do these largely acoustic, often elegant, and usually down-to-earth songs justice, succeeding where Down in Albion's quieter moments got lost in fog and chaos.
Doherty revisits the glory days of his former band but doesn't try to relive them, even when he digs into his bag of tunes for "New Love Grows on Trees," a Libertines-era tune with the knowing line "If you're still alive when you're 25, should I kill you like you asked me to?" The song is more smoky and evocative than a Libs-like fiery outburst; similarly, "Arcadie" sounds wistful for the ideals of a few years ago, but Doherty sings with the knowledge that they are just ideals. The single "The Last of the English Roses" feels doubly nostalgic, its lyrics providing Doherty's older-but-wiser take on young emotions and its haunting melodica line recalling Blur's dub fetish. Aside from the narcotic love song "Sheep Skin Tearaway," Grace/Wastelands is some of Doherty's least overtly autobiographical music; instead, the album offers lots of stories and literary allusions, nodding to Oscar Wilde ("Broken Love Song") and the Bible (the gorgeously melodic "Salome"). He channels enough of his own emotion and experience into his storytelling that these songs never feel distant. The World War II-inspired ballad "1939 Returning" -- which was originally conceived as a duet between Doherty and Amy Winehouse -- and "A Little Death Around the Eyes," a Scott Walker-esque torch song to the love that got away from a couple after their happily ever after, are particular standouts. Doherty also uses his solo status to expand his musical range, as on the trad jazz homage "Sweet by and By," and even when he returns to more straightforward rock with "Through the Looking Glass" or "Palace of Bone"'s fiery folk-rock, it's never with the fury of the Libertines or Babyshambles. It's possible that Doherty erred slightly too much on the side of caution and maturity with Grace/Wastelands, but its best moments are so good that it's hard not to feel a little cheated by how incomplete most of his other post-Libertines work feels compared to it. Even if it's a little too measured at times, this is the most consistent, and one of the most enjoyable, albums' to Doherty's name -- regardless of whether it's Pete or Peter. ~ Heather Phares, Rovi