The Pogues have a lot to answer for. I blame them for every half-assed Celtic Rock band filled with musicians who learned to play on stage and couldn’t make it at a slow session to save their lives. As GMR music editor I’ve listened to many, loved a few, and grown exceptionally weary of most.
But The Pogues also have lot to take credit for – they brought Irish music to many. I suspect that they launched more than a few journeys seeking the heart that lies within many musics. Their cynical sentimentality is almost irresistible, and really listening to their music you begin to suspect they may not be that weary of the world after all.
McGowan’s impact on music is as undeniable as the question of whether his habits are inseparable from his genius or the demon that holds it back. BBC reviewer Cormac Heron puts it very well: “MacGowan has a rare way with words and an ability to take something horrible and make it sound beautiful, delicate and, of course, intoxicating.” And it’s not just McGowan – it’s the package. Being at a Pogues show, or even listening to one, is gaining admission to a rare vision of the world, where so many of the really dreadful things about being here now are redeemed in a haze of altered reality.
And this music’s not just for the great hung-over masses, breathing tobacco and alcohol on morning commuters on the subway after a long session. I hadn’t listened to the Pogues all that much in recent years – an avocational hazard I guess — but after listening to both discs, I was seduced anew. I listened again. And again. I made excuses for why I couldn’t finish this review. I didn’t want to give it up. I played it at work. I played it at home. In between. It is really surprising how evocative this music is, even after all these years. I get a warm fuzzy feeling every time, a little smirk passes over my lips. I feel silly, taken in, like an old lady doting on a young lover. If it’s a joke, we’re all in on it.
Which brings me to this “ultimate” collection, following on from the release of the re-mastered, individual albums. Do you need it? Well, that depends. Like many collections, a few of my personal favorites are missing – although I cannot deny that each of the songs on disc one is a gem. “If I should fall from Grace” is always a favorite because of the energetic rhythm. “Sunny Side of the Street” is there in all its ramshackle brilliance. I could keep going, but instead allow me to suggest the track list. Disc 1 is a good choice for those who don’t feel the need for completeness, and mostly liked the “singles” anyway. Or, if you would like to get the lot, but haven’t been able to justify getting all of the re-releases, disc one will earn its keep.
But it is Live at the Brixton Academy on disc two that really reeled me in. It has the heart you may remember – or may be anticipating, as the band are touring now with the Dropkick Murphys opening, and will be back in the US in the spring of 2006. One feature of the live disc cannot be glossed over – the performance seems intimate, with affection for the crowd and the music that cannot be denied. OK, some of the songs are a bit fast – “Sally McLennane” comes to mind – but the performance really shines because it is so immediate, unabashedly tugging at the heartstrings, winking, leering and wonderful. Let’s face it, production values might not be the strength of the Pogues corpus anyway – with all due respect to their A-list producers, this music was meant to be experienced in person. Listening to this show it also occurs to me that one of the Pogues secret strengths is that they are able to appreciate the Irish-American spirit — rare for those from Ireland – with the same unblinking affection they have for their own people, seemingly for all people. If you have fond memories of the Pogues, the live disc more than justifies adding this Ultimate Collection to your own collection. Listening to “Streams of Whiskey” and “Dirty Old Town” I felt I might be at a neighborhood bar’s sing along – you may have thought you’ve heard the latter song enough for one life, but you haven’t. Trust me. And happily, the live disc has some songs missing from disc one.
The Pogues draw you in, and you find that little wellspring of emotion bubbling up from somewhere in your carefully guarded heart. Then you shake yourself, roll your eyes, and have another sip of your beverage of choice. Coffee, perhaps. Or Irish Coffee. Either will do.