Novelist Maurice Leblanc’s early 19th detective Arsène Lupin was the antithesis of the typical true crime hero. More Robin Hood than Sherlock Holmes, the fictitious character was a burglar of sorts, notoriously sly in stealing from the rich and distributing his said bounty. A master of disguise, Lupin was the protagonist—or antagonist—of dozens of novels and short stories, released from 1905 through the last adventure published posthumously after Leblanc’s death in 1941 and most recently turned into a Netflix mystery series. The mystique of Lupin and the felonious pursuits inspired Peter Doherty and composer Frédéric Lo to explore their own musical misadventures on the duo’s collaborative album The Fantasy Life of Poetry & Crime (Strap Originals).
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Composed and written by Lo and Doherty, The Fantasy Life of Poetry & Crime is a collection of the pair’s own tales, opening with the “The Fantasy Life of Poetry & Crime,” an ode to the Leblanc’s beguiling gentleman thief. “The melody is in a folk European style it could be Ennio Morricone or Nino Rota (The Godfather),” said Lo of the composition. “There was a TV series, ‘Arsène Lupin,’ in the ’70s with songs by Jacques Dutronc. The series was a little bit James Bond and all the women fell in love with him and he was unwatchable.”
Throughout The Fantasy Life of Poetry & Crime are different tales told. The piano ballad, “The Epidemiologist,” addresses “hope when things are a mess,” says Doherty, who serenades through very Penny Dreadful-like stances on “The Ballad Of,” which envisions a story less macabre before its classical-pop build. “It’s a kind of a day in the life of someone squatting with their dogs in a disused B&B on the Esplanade in Margate,” says Doherty.
The Fantasy Life of Poetry & Crime revels around film and art, literature and music in “Yes, I Wear a Mask,” jabbing at the unnatural state of masks and other concealments, and the indie flair of “Rock and Roll Alchemy” and music serving as an elixir for grief and loss. The latter track is close-held to “Abe Wasserstein,” a tender, acoustic homage to Doherty’s friend and longtime Libertines collaborator Alan Wass, who died in 2015 at the age of 33 after suffering a heart attack— He lived upon a rock and died upon a roll… I sit and stare / I say a prayer… a kind of prayer for a friend of mine.
Doherty, who now lives in Éretrat, France, references his struggle for a drug-free lifestyle on the more uptempo semblance of The Smiths on “You Can’t Keep It From Me Forever” and the other side of addiction on “The Monster,” singing La vie est tendre / Belle et violente (Life is tender, beautiful and violent). The pair also revisit the poem Nelson Mandela would recite to his prison mates, “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley on the track of the same name.
More characters find their way in, moving through more East European-gypsy beats of “The Glassblower” and the lower fi folk-pop of “Keeping Me on Fire,” singing One drop of wine, one pull of the tide and the sun is darkening” before the closing “Far From the Maddening Crowd,” a song birthed from the recent pandemic, its title pulled from the 1874 Thomas Hardy book of the same name and Thomas Gray’s 1751 poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”
“This is a pure lockdown song about not being able to play, all the venues being closed, all the bars being closed… far from the madding crowd, missing the crowd, missing the communal experience—even churches were closed,” says Doherty, reciting Gray’s poetic “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife, their sober wishes never learned to stray; Along the cool sequestered vale of life They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.”
Written during a period when Doherty was working on his sobriety, The Fantasy Life of Poetry & Crime is an oeuvre of renewal, wild curiosities, with lyrical settings found in moments of mystique.
For Lo, who first met Doherty while he was working on a Babyshambles album then again when Lo was producing a tribute album to the later French singer Daniel Darc in 2013, their union may have been a mismatched to the outside world but in reality was something sent from the heavens, says Lo. “We met one week later,” says Lo, “and we become friends immediately.”
Their immediate kinship, Doherty says, started from the music Lo gifted him. “Writing and recording the demos happened very easily,” says Doherty. “We had a shared vision just to get it done. We’re both curious about the world.”
He adds, “I was in a bit of a creative low because of the Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, and Fred was like a knight on a white horse coming across the cliff tops of Normandy with his inspiration.”
Working through all the logistics of getting everything recorded around the lockdown, Doherty says was the most difficult part of making the album. Everything else naturally snapped together. “It worked for me because I just I fell in love with these pieces of music, pretty much as soon as I read them… these beautiful melodies and beautiful songs,” says Doherty. “They just seemed to be there crying out. Some didn’t need lyrics and could work just as instrumentals. I think they do as well. They really stand up as beautifully like some Erik Satie pieces.”
Mostly written within the same time over the span of a few weeks, Doherty says the songs are defined as much by the lyrics as the mood, and the atmosphere of the melodies and the duo’s setting. Recording inside a 19th century house in Éretrat, with its crumbling walls and other strange nuances, imparted some of the magic into their 12 songs.
“There are there are uplifting moments, but it’s a quite a somber record,” says Doherty. “There aren’t many chipper songs.” Recently married to longtime girlfriend Katia de Vidas in 2021, Doherty adds that the song ‘Keeping Me on File’ is probably the most upbeat, referencing love and unity. “I was thinking more along the lines of keeping the flame alive in your heart,” says Doherty of the track.
“Hearing him [Doherty] singing these songs for the first time made me so happy,” shares Lo. “It was weird because it all felt so normal for us… like a dream.”
Doherty responds to Lo, “What a lovely thing to say,” and adds “The whole thing was like a waking dream.”
Photo: Nicolas Despis