Did the Dropkicks Grow Up?

Carl Brooks

How sad would that be, right? Well, the Dropkick Murphys’ new album, “Blackout,” shows signs, definite signs, of a marked shift in attitude and deliverance for the homegrown Celtic skin and punk band. The Dropkicks are probably the most noteworthy band in the last ten years to come out of punk rock Boston, doing it in inimitable fashion, without major label help, without airplay, appearances, limos or any of that sell-out bling that the soulless demons of L.A. offer to young musicians in order to eat their souls. The Dropkicks did it on merit, sweat and a fan base that rivals the Jehovah’s Witnesses for zeal and organization. As one grizzled and mohawked acquaintance put it, “I HATE the Dropkick Murphys. Why? Because they did everything f*cking right and everybody f*cking loves them! I can’t stand a skin band everybody loves.”

They had a less than meteoric rise to underground fame, busting their fuzzies for ages in the grimy, drug- and violence-ridden club scene before they got a bootstrap lift-off and published an album, “Do or Die” in 1997. Fueled in the main by their former lead singer, Boston boy Mike McColgan, they sang their anthemic, catchy songs about the salt of the Bay State earth, the working-class Irish, in a frank and dramatic fashion, holding to their collective skinny, white Irish breasts what all the great punk bands did: ravening sincerity and utter disillusionment with the status quo.

Now, in the halcyon days of the well established Boston music scene, where it’s possible, if not highly likely, to pay your rent, buy a car and raise a brat on the proceeds from running with a indie band, the Dropkicks have apparently settled into what passes for the big time in the underground. They tour with unheralded but hugely popular concerts and routinely are the big draw for punk/skin/ska fests wherever they go, often ostensibly “opening” for major label punk wannabes but always stealing the show. They lack the torch that led them this far, however. McColgan has retired from onstage ass-kicking and fulfilled a long held dream; he is a Boston firefighter, inhabiting the ranks of the working class heroes he sprang from and so fervently sang about. Their new singer, Al Barr (late of the Bruisers), has made the Dropkicks a continuing success, belting out the old standards in approved fashion, boots, jeans and veins in the neck all standing out, but their new CD, in part authored by Al Barr and diligently performed by the rest of he band, does not show that same “instant classic” and in-your-face rollicking sounds of previous albums. That’s ok; they were always a live band, and remain so, but it gives the listener pause to hear these slower, sadder songs, because it drives home the truth of time. The Dropkicks are most likely at the draggled end of their twenties now, or worse, and have kept a rock-and-roll schedule that has killed lesser men since their inception. Old singer McColgan knew the truth of what he was doing. It ends, everything ends, and when you get a prize like a spot on the BFD, you take it, polish your boots one more time, and hang up your microphone for better days.

Not to say that you can’t keep on making music, which is what the Dropkicks are doing. The new album shows the definitive stamp of maturity; it’s up to the listener to decide if that’s what they want. It also shows the stamp of Al Barr. With the Bruisers, Barr made some of the most fearsome rock and roll ever, growling out hardcore like death’s messenger. Bruiser shows were dark, bloody and not noted for happy dancing. He’s lightened up a lot, because after all, the Dropkicks are a fun band, but still that hardcore, atonal, arrhythmic rasp gravels over the melodic Murphys sound like a dusty, desolate highway.

Put out by Hellcat records, “Blackout” arrived with a press release that gushed disgusting pus like an infected bladder about how this was “DKM’s finest record to date” Uh, no. In some respects it is their most interesting album to date, but their finest was “Do or Die,” end of story. “Blackout” still carries the mission and the soul of the Dropkicks, which is their iron commitment to telling the stories of the poor, the ugly and the Irish in Boston and the new songs have a storyteller’s craft to them and a note of sincerity that affects, but they are slow. Not quite dirge-slow, but definitely ballad slow. Those used to McColgan belting out a three-minute song without taking a breath should perk up their ears and listen for Barr to take several, especially on “This is Your Life” or “Outcast.”

It’s mainly the rhythm that’s gone, the joyous anger-fueled spew of nonstop Celtic patter, that fans will miss. Not to say that Barr doesn’t have rhythm, he does, just not that bouncy punk-rock singsong. It’s much more East Coast hardcore. Their tribute song is “Gonna be a Blackout Tonight” originally written be Woody Guthrie; rather than a standout single, it’s typical of the album. The meter is broken, the instrumentals coarser than usual and the song is touching rather than riveting. In typical asinine fashion, the press release babbles on about how the song is some kind of Guthrie family, Boston punk singalong, but that’s just silly. Sensibly rather than recklessly, the Dropkicks are looking back to “the day,” paying homage to their youth, their energy, and their glory rather than egging it along. Much as Black Flag after Rollins, the Dropkicks are another band after McColgan, and they should be wise enough to know it. We’ll see if they can grow up, or just fade away.