Peter sounds invigorated by a move to Paris, on a record mostly put together by bassist Drew McDonnell
Peter Doherty will always be a man whose talent is overlooked because of stories about heroin falling out of his pocket at a bail hearing, or pictures emerging of him allegedly making a cat smoke crack. Behave like a lunatic and people tend to lose sight of your positive attributes.
But one of the 34-year-old’s charms has always been how open his lyrics are about his own trials and tribulations. From the wide-eyed maniac yelping “horse is brown” on The Libertines’ first album to the “fuck forever” philosophy on Babyshambles’ 2005 debut ‘Down In Albion’, they’ve always been a way to keep tabs on the guy. So when 2007’s ‘Shotters Nation’ was the most depressed and depressing thing Doherty’s ever recorded, it was a concern. He’d always had a victim complex – see Libs classic ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ – but this time he was wallowing in sorrow. Bad times followed: a split from Kate Moss, some jail time. Fast-forward six years, though, and the mood in Babyshambles has changed. Doherty is actually flirting with optimism on ‘Sequel To The Prequel’.
Key to this is ‘Farmer’s Daughter’, sort of an inverted ‘Fuck Forever’. The guitar intro is similarly jagged and the chorus as anthemic, but Peter rejects his own inevitable demise to instead focus on a moment when “sunlight hits the snow”. This is what happens to a man when he spends more time mincing around Paris than Camden Town. Moving to France has done him good, and the city’s influence runs through the record. The title track is a jazzy café culture number, with Pete cast as the man entertaining a small room from behind a piano. “Mama said hold your head up high”, he sings like a man fresh from a nice big mum cuddle. The dinky and leering ska of ‘Dr No’ is similarly continental, with Peter skulking around and repeating the childish line “sharks in the water and the water’s deep”.
As jolly and reassuring as they are, though, none of this is ‘Time For Heroes’ poignant. He’s got one of those meaningful voices – as Tom Waits or Nick Cave do – that lets him get away with sloppiness. But things take a turn for the banal on ‘Penguins’, which is literally a song about going to the zoo. “We could see monkeys/We could see snakes/We could see penguins/Ah, penguins are great”. The tune then saves itself by stumbling across the amusingly oafish chorus: “I really don’t like your boyfriend’s face/I’m going to try and take his place”. And for a man who’s spent more than a decade filling his lungs with toxic smoke, Pete’s in remarkably good voice.
Elsewhere there are more reasons to believe Doherty is currently some way off his creative peak. Dormant are the days when he wrote so much music he didn’t know what to do with it, and this is the first album since ‘Up The Bracket’ to only feature co-written songs. Guitarist Mik Whitnall and bassist Drew McConnell have songwriting credits, with McConnell in particular being touted in interviews as Babyshambles’ key cog (that “boyfriend’s face” line is one of his). Producer Stephen Street (The Smiths, Blur, ‘Shotters Nation’) keeps things tight, but McConnell has a taste for classic songwriting that’s occasionally a bit too familiar: ‘Seven Shades Of Nothing’ borrows the descending bassline from ‘Waterloo Sunset’ by The Kinks, ‘Dr No’ plays with the harmonica line from The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ and ‘Fall From Grace’ builds around the intro from Bob Dylan’s ‘I Want You’.
But the thrill of bands Peter Doherty is in has nothing to do with originality. Even at his most relevant the guy was ripping The Clash. The thrill is on this line on ‘Fireman’, a song with the punky energy of Libertines offcut ‘Skag & Bone Man’: “It’s breakfast time/Have a pot of wine/Sucking on a bone/Chewing on a microphone/ I AM A FIREMAN”. And in the knowledge that he has the wildest heart in rock’n’roll, and that there is hope poking through the darkness surrounding him.