Punk bands of the Dropkick Murphys’ vintage tend to be viewed as part of the furniture nowadays, never really making a huge impact in the long run but still putting an album out every couple of years to satiate the fanbase. In the Dropkick Murphys’ case, the piece of furniture they can be compared to most is an old pub chair – slightly weathered and beer-stained, but still as functional as the day it was built. On the flipside, it’s also incredibly easy to ignore, such has been the case with the Bostonian’s last couple of releases, not bad albums by any stretch, and it’s hard not to get swept up in the Celtic punk they’ve put their name to, but they felt perfunctory more than anything else, and largely forgettable in the long term.
Thankfully, 11 Short Stories Of Pain & Glory is the sound of a band getting back on the horse in spectacular fashion, though not from the word “go”. The gang chants and misty whistles of introductory track The Lonesome Boatman are harmless but unnecessary, but following that is the Murphys with all of their best traits accentuated – hoarse, hearty, lager-fuelled and likable to a fault. Likability is probably the key factor here, because the Murphys’ formula has remained virtually unchanged – punked-up shanties with whistles and accordion and drunken choirs backing Ken Casey and Al Barr’s coarse, unrefined bellows. All of these elements remain natural bedfellows, and the band have clearly tapped back into the same ragged vigour of their standout material for …Pain & Glory. Rebels With A Cause and Kicked To The Curb adhere to this formula pretty rigidly, while Sandlot almost feels like an Against Me! track with some frayed acoustic guitar bashes around the edges, and First Class Loser even adopts a country rollick.
Again, this is really nothing new, but the decisive factor of …Pain & Glory‘s quality is its immense feeling of community and brotherhood. Every single hook is virtually impossible not to scream along to, and the sloshed backing chorus of each one makes it all the easier to become sucked in – hell, Blood practically demands you have a pint in hand in order to join in. The populism is enormous, so much so that it manages to overshadow some of the album’s more questionable lyrical content – First Class Loser details some rather unnecessary levels of violence towards an annoying neighbour (“I wanna hit him, bite him, fight him, punch him, watch him as he falls / I’m gonna trash him, kick him, scratch him, club him, smash him in the balls”) and the traditional folk cover I Had A Hat sees the narrator starting a full-on bar brawl after someone steals his hat, but there’s a knowing wink and the clear presence of alcohol that makes them difficult to get too worked up about.
Where the community vibe becomes text is where this album really stands out, and shows the diversity to the Murphys songwriting that is so frequently overlooked. The best example comes in the album standout Sandlot, which sees the band reminiscing about a childhood that wasn’t anything remarkable, but there’s a nostalgic fondness and consistent use of “we” that makes for an openly relatable concept to a widespread audience. The vision of solidarity and kinship is inflated to an even greater degree in the album’s final act – the cover of You’ll Never Walk Alone is fairly self-explanatory in its sentiment of light after weathering the storm, but 4-15-13 probably hits harder from a lyrical standpoint, written as a tribute to the victims of the 2013 Boston bombings as the sort of anthem to togetherness and brotherhood that suits the band’s style to a T. Musically some of the bite is lost here – closer Until The Next Time interpolates Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again into its chorus and unwisely retains some of the schmaltz of the original – but at least their hearts are in the right place, and there’s emotional resonance that seeps through regardless.
Compared to the similarly late-period output of their peers, or even their own, …Pain & Glory is a triumph. It’s not cerebral by any stretch, but in terms of an album that latches onto the joy centres of the brain and is nigh on impossible to shake off, it’s an area in which the Dropkick Murphys excel. It’s true that the longevity of such an album is a bit shaky at such an early point in the year, but as an ephemeral knees-up of riotous, blue-collar punk, you’d be hard pushed to find something better than this.
For fans of: Flogging Molly, The Pogues, Bruce Springsteen
Words by Luke Nuttall
’11 Short Stories Of Pain & Glory’ by Dropkick Murphys is out now on Born & Bred Records.