[3 December 2007]
If ever there was a band that demanded an album containing the prefix ‘best of’ in the title, it most certainly wasn’t the Libertines. Quite apart from the fact that the troupe’s brief lifespan cultivated the release of just two studio albums, and laying aside for a minute the fact that both of these can easily be picked up for only marginally more expense than this collection, it is the Libertines’ cultural status with which this release seems completely at odds. Regardless of your opinion of them, and opinions have always been markedly split, the decision to release, at this time of year, a compilation of material (none of which is previously unreleased) by a band whose devotees reveled in a perceived sense of identification and affinity with their idols, is as much an insult to their bafflingly fanatical fan base as it is a cynical marketing ploy.
Though it is entirely moot as to whether the Libertines were cultural iconoclasts or over-hyped serial-underachievers, make no mistake about it; the influence Doherty et al had (you’d hope that nature of the plethora of publicity regarding the aforementioned headline-whore would render the past-tense appropriate here) on a generation of adolescent music fans is impressive. Like them or loathe them, the band did (as the PR parade will surely not neglect to mention) soundtrack a snatch in time, a mini-era, and thrust a much-needed shot of adrenaline into the spine of British pop culture.
But to suggest that this gives sufficient cause to lump the finer moments of said era onto one disc for a shameless Christmas cash-in is entirely missing the point, and is in essence the antithesis of the spirit that previously championed guerrilla gigs and free-for-all stage invasions. Whoever originally conceived this release will undoubtedly have intended it as a homage to a band who are, after all, one of the more influential of the 21st century so far. Problem is; it just doesn’t seem like one. Instead, it comes across as an attempt to capitalize on a combination of present-buying mothers and Pete Doherty’s seemingly boundless capacity to get himself in the news.
As for the actual contents of Time for Heroes, it is much as you would expect; “Don’t Look Back into the Sun”, “What a Waster”, “What Became of the Likely Lads” etc. are all present and correct, as are a few fan-chosen album highlights, such as “What Katie Did” and “Up the Bracket”. So far, it’s still ‘best of’. Where the collection really falls short, however, is in the conspicuous absence of anything with even a faint whiff of new about it. Not that you’d expect anything, of course, given the well-publicized, needle-strewn tempest that was the band’s drawn-out demise, but where most collections of this type are given to providing at least the odd unreleased track or live recording, the best Time for Heroes can offer is a re-recorded version of “Death on the Stairs”. Which all just makes it a bit pointless, really, doesn’t it?
Perhaps it’s for the best anyway, given that had unreleased material been included fans would then be obliged part with an album’s-worth of cash to obtain a mere one or two tracks (legally, anyway), but you still can’t help wondering just who, aforementioned present-seekers aside, Rough Trade are expecting to buy this. Indeed, the only thing on offer here which isn’t nigh on certain to already be found amid Libertines’ fans’ record collections is b-side “Mayday”, whose raucous but disposable sixty-four seconds confirms what you already suspect its inclusion to be; a futile record label attempt to justify a release that can’t really be justified.
Still, to steer what’s become a marketing critique back on course to an album review, it’s impossible to listen to the Libertines’ finer moments, like the title track’s desperate howl of “Oh how I cherish you my love”, without some appreciation of just what good songs some of these were in the first place. There’s an edginess to the Libertines’ sound that still feels refreshing when placed aside the over-polished sheen of bands like Razorlight, particularly given that this rawness is rarely at the expense of melody. Again, it’s subjective as to whether they were rabble-rousing innovators or just overrated garage-punks. To call Pete Doherty a poet for his generation seems a bizarre misconception, but you can’t deny that when on form, both Docherty and Carl Barât were fantastic songwriters and this release represents that well. What’s more, that songs like “Don’t Look Back Into The Sun”, or the sense of intimate honesty that accompanies “Can’t Stand Me Now”‘s introspective “have we enough to keep it together?” are still alluring a few years on admittedly bodes well for those who would like to see the Libertines thought of as an iconic representation of early 21st century pop culture for many decades to come.
Nevertheless, the inherent flaw in the very concept of a ‘best of’ album remains all too obvious. Fans, i.e. those at whom the release is targeted, will own all this stuff already. They will have bought Off the Bracket, they will have eagerly devoured its eponymous successor, and even those not inclined to pick up single releases will long ago have downloaded the few pickings not contained on the full-lengths. The festive season is always littered with cash-cows masquerading as essential companions to fandom; Time for Heroes is certainly not the first, nor will it be the last. But while it is not alone in that respect, the brevity of the Libertines’ life as an outfit, coupled with the fanaticism they inspired in that time, do make them a unique prospect, and that only serves to magnify the album’s shortcomings.
So if you’re one of the few uneducated in the shambolic glory of Messrs Barât and Doherty then by all means, pick up Time for Heroes. At least that way you’ll avoid the filler that surrounded the Libertines’ crown jewels on their studio albums and save yourself the price of a beer in the process. But existing fans, of course, will already have dismissed this for the pointless exercise in profiteering that it is, and those who remain unconvinced by all this talk of heroes and icons, or feel that too often the Libertines’ were just a little too style-over-substance, well; you’ve probably not made it to the end of this review.