While Pete Doherty’s deathwatch continues, the legacy of the Libertines remains in limbo. Unfortunately for the band, Doherty is probably known stateside more for being Kate Moss’s crack-addled accessory than for contributing notably to the garage rock revival from earlier in the decade. The Libertines—certifiably huge in the U.K.—were another great English band that never quite caught on in the U.S. beyond being diligently digested by the music in-crowd. The brawling foursome were able to release two albums before breaking up for good in 2004, an impressive output given that every song they put down seemed like it would be their last. The Libertines didn’t invent the shambolic style, but they came close to perfecting it: distorted guitar riffs bleeding marvelously into one another, garbled lines of British gutter-slang like “What a divvy, what a fucking div/Talking like a moron, walking like a spiv,” all encrypted with subtle pop structures and smartly produced by none other than the Clash’s Mick Jones.
For the Americans who in 2003 were too into the Strokes, the Vines, the Hives, or the White Stripes to consider another definite-article-titled group of bedenimed three-chord heroes, Rough Trade offers Time for Heroes: The Best of the Libertines. It is impossible to think the record label expects anyone who has ever listened to the Libertines before to buy this compilation; after all, the band has released only two albums that were both strong in their entireties. Time for Heroes, in offering only the best from those albums in addition to two b-sides, is devoid of unreleased material and thus completely unnecessary to fans of the band. That said, the music is a pleasure to revisit and would be a boon to the uninitiated. From “What a Waster,” the band’s blistery first single, to the anthemic title track, most of the material has aged well.
Five years ago the band’s racket seemed to be nothing more than easy, cocksure coolness. Doherty and his cohort were so draped in their own tabloid drama that the music became an afterthought. Now, though, the calculation apparent in bands like the Strokes has become clearer in the oeuvre of the Libertines. Take, for example, Doherty and Carl Barat trading verses and gently harmonizing on the emotive foot-stomper “Can’t Stand Me Now,” or the blazing guitar line tracing itself through “Death on the Stairs”—moments that show considerable craftsmanship. If anything, Time for Heroes reminds us that the Libertines were more than the sum of their factions, and that they carried some nice tricks in their bucket.
As long as Doherty refuses to give into the cliché by continuing to live, the Libertines’ catalog will be saved from the kind of publicity only a famous death can bring. Doherty’s second band, Babyshambles (who released an album about a month ago), is hardly awful, while a few other ex-Libertines are pursuing a more radio-friendly sound with the band Dirty Pretty Little Things. Suffice it to say these groups lack the charisma and the clamorous merriment of the Libertines so well displayed on Time for Heroes.