Overtly political music is some of the most difficult to pull off well. First of all there’s the whole credibility factor. It’s really hard to take pop stars seriously when they start preaching about hunger, poverty and the environment when their lifestyles are so opulent. Maybe if they’d start showing up for gigs in something slightly more fuel efficient than fully air-conditioned stretch limousines their messages regarding social change might be taken a little more seriously. On the other hand you have the politically earnest types who are undeniably sincere, but who are as musically interesting as watching grass grow. Rock and roll has the vitality to fuel a revolution, but those who have the ability to marry the media to their message are few and far between.
So hearing a band like Flogging Molly for the first time is akin to the proverbial breath of fresh air. While Speed Of Darkness, released late last month on their own Borstal Beat Records, turns out to have been their fifth studio recording it was the first time I’d heard them. I have to admit the press materials accompanying the disc billing them as a “Celtic punk” band combined to both make me intrigued and reluctant to give it a listen. If you’ve been weaned on the barely controlled chaos of The Pogues you tend to approach anyone claiming to be Celtic punk with some skepticism. It’s not just another genre label you can casually pick up and put down by learning how to play tunes in a certain way. Bands like The Pogues made it clear this was a music that grew out of life experience and not the studio or rehearsal hall. If you don’t have it in you, you can’t fake it.
That doesn’t mean you have to have grown up on the streets of Belfast or some such nonsense. What it does mean is you have to understand how little difference there is between traditional Irish folk music and so-called Celtic punk. It can’t just be a matter of picking up some electric instruments, tossing them into the mix alongside the fiddle and tin whistle and then stomping your way through tunes at light speed. You have to be able to hear the wildness in the fiddle, the way the throb of the bodhran moves the blood, why the skirl of the uillean pipes raises the hair on the back of a person’s neck and how a tin whistle can cast a spell over a listener. If you can ride what you find in there and push its natural inclination towards anarchy and chaos further along the road, you’ll create something riveting.
From the opening opening bars of the opening title cut, Flogging Molly’s Speed Of Darkness reaches out, grabs you, and doesn’t let go until the final echoes of the disc’s closing song, “Rise Up,” fade away. Musically they understand how much power there is in silence and how important it is to let an audience absorb your performance. They are equally comfortable riding the whirlwind as parking themselves carefully in the eye of the hurricane to bring those essential moments of calm. The material ranges from verging on Mach 1, like the title track, to the ballad tempo of “A Prayer For Me In Silence” and nearly everything in between. Yet the speed of a song has no bearing on the intensity of its passion or the amount of impact it has on the listener. While there are some bands who think speed on its own is sufficient to convey intensity and others who think a slow song has to be milked to the point of melodrama to be effective, Flogging Molly isn’t one of them. Even the fastest song never descends into a simple drone of noise as individual instruments remain distinct and the lyrics are understandable. On the slower material they simply have the common sense to trust in their abilities and let the music and lyrics speak for themselves instead of trying to dress them up with excessive emoting or any other such nonsense.
Yet for all their musical prowess the true power of this band resides in its ability to use the music as the vehicle for conveying the message of its lyrics. Taking for their inspiration the economic collapse and its impact on America’s workers and middle class in general, the songs on the disc reflect just how severe a blow it’s been both economically and emotionally to those hit by it the worst. Lead singer and band founder, Dave King, and his wife Bridget Regan (violin, tin whistle, classical guitar, uillean pipes and vocals), have been living in her native Detroit for the last three years, which has given them ample opportunity to witness the depth of such damage.
For the worker who’s been laid off after 27 years spent at the same factory in “Revolution” left wondering what happened, “I’m a working man without any work / Well is this the way it’s meant to be ’cause I singed up for the American Dream / Now I write my name to the welfare state and the money in the bank is history.” It’s not just how the song captures how those who politicians have referred to so blithely as the “backbone of America” have had their economic world shattered; it’s the way it also manages to convey the depth the betrayal they are feeling. The song’s ability to convey their confusion and bitterness at seeing all they’ve been led to believe was their God given right — the pursuit of happiness — be taken away by forces beyond their control is what makes it so potent. Anyone who wonders where the anger is coming from that fuels movements like the Tea Party and other voices of dissent need only listen to this song to begin to understand.
I”m not saying Flogging Molly endorse the Tea Party, but without direction the people harboring such alienated anger as the narrator in the song are only waiting for the first strong voice offering a solution to come along until jumping on board. Flogging Molly don’t pretend there are any easy answers to the plight of people who have had their lives destroyed by this so called “downturn.” However, they do make sure to remind people who the real culprits are. “Don’t Shut ‘Em Down” rails against corporate America for foreclosing on the dreams of those whose labour built their empires. The haunting “Oliver Boy (All Of Our Boys)” warns against those offering the easy solution of blaming our troubles on those who are different from us. Attacking illegal aliens, other cultures or those who believe differently than we do won’t give anyone their jobs back, and to paraphrase the song, under our clothes we’re all the same anyway.
Speed Of Darkness concludes with what is both a rallying cry and a reminder that we’re not as powerless as we might think we are. “Rise Up” offers the reminder that when we work together we can accomplish more than we could dream possible. Drawing upon and quoting, “We Shall Overcome,” it offers us a glimpse of our potential to bring about change, but only if we can put aside our differences and work together. It’s not a pie-in-the-sky type of song with promises of a worker’s paradise nor does it make any naive demands about overthrowing the system. It does offer a message of hope, though, and while it might not restore anybody’s faith in the American Dream, it will stir hearts into believing the future does not have to be as bleak as the present.
Flogging Molly is one of those truly remarkable bands who have found a way to put a political message to music without compromising either the quality of their sound or coming across like preachers or hypocrites. Part of that can be traced to the fact their content feels like a natural extension of the music, as if either the music grew out of the lyrics or vice versa. Like old Irish folk tunes, which are the heart that drives their engine, the songs on this disc seem to have grown out of their passion for speaking out about what they see around them and putting into song the hopes and angst of those who have been overtaken by events. If you truly want to understand the impact of the economic collapse on the people around you, don’t read the papers, listen to politicians or watch the news — listen to Speed Of Darkness instead. It cuts through the bullshit and leaves the truth behind.