We punk music fans can be a fickle lot. When a band puts out a few albums in a row that are similar in song structure and tone, we give them shit because “every song sounds the same.” Think Pennywise. So when a band branches out in an attempt to grow in sound and display some different things musically, we give them shit for “selling out” or for forgetting their roots. Think Face To Face, particularly Ignorance Is Bliss.
Enter the Dropkick Murphys, who somehow manage to get grenades lobbed at them from both sides of the proverbial aisle. The Boston –area Celt-punks have unquestionably seen their sound (and their size) evolve considerably over the last decade-and-a-half, particularly in the post-McColgan era. And yet, over the better part of the last decade, they seem to have developed the Springsteenian quality of stumbling upon a formula that works, at least for them, and doing very little to stray from that path. As such, their latest release, Signed And Sealed In Blood, contains moments that will please fans both new and old, while continuing to trace their steps down some of the same trails they’ve been wearing out for a decade.
In many ways, it’s unfair to compare the 2013 Dropkicks to the pre-“Tessie” Dropkicks. As a Boston Irish (or at least half-Irish) guy in his mid-thirties, it’s too easy to resort to “I liked them better when…” mode; doing so cheapens the strides that the Dropkicks have made in crafting music that is more interesting and complex than their street punk older days. At times, Signed And Sealed In Blood contains glimpses of the past, particularly in high-energy tracks like “The Battle Rages On,” “Burn” and album-opener “The Boys Are Back.”
For this reviewer’s money, the boys continue to shine when they step outside their traditional (stereotypical) comfort zone and dial down the intensity while punching up the depth of the songwriting, both lyrically and musically. “Rose Tattoo,” for example, is more of a mid-tempo track that, while it might be a tad on the long side at 5:08, tells a story that evokes some great sentiment. Also, in one of the more seemingly unlikely pairings in recent memory, it features Winston Marshall of Mumford & Sons on banjo (Mumford & Sons and the Dropkick Murphys shared the stage for a few gigs in 2012). “Out Of Our Heads” is another mid-tempo rocker that’s a pretty fun song with the welcome characteristic of letting the guitars come to the forefront in ways that they don’t normally in newer Dropkicks songs. It might be a little reminiscent of “Sunshine Highway,” but that’s okay by me. “The Season’s Upon Us” might be a Christmas-themed track, but the dysfunctional chaos contained keeps it from seeming like a novelty track, and it works nicely on the album.
As you might expect, however, Signed And Sealed In Blood contains a handful of tracks that you’ve heard many times before. “Prisoner’s Song” is an uptempo sea shanty that might as well be billed as a sequel to “Shipping Up To Boston.” “Out On The Town” is fine musically, though the lyrics are boring and uninspired to say the least, making the track come across as filler. Album closer “End Of The Night” echoes crowd-favorite “Kiss Me, I’m Shit-Faced” in both tone and in sentiment. It’s tracks like the latter two (which close out the album) that are the type that invoke the most ire from long-time fans and cheapen the Dropkicks’ craft. We get it, fellas: you like drinking. The constant need to revert to vapid, lowest-common-denominator lyrics is frustrating, and tarnishes the bright spots that the band are increasingly capable of writing.
All told, Signed And Sealed In Blood is a good, not great release. It compares favorably with Warrior’s Code, The Meanest Of Times and Going Out In Style, with little to separate it in either a positive or negative direction with any of those three (except that it is the rare DKM album that doesn’t contain a reworking of a traditional Irish folk tune, which is actually sort of a bummer now that I think of it). In that regard, it’s very much an ‘average’ Dropkicks album by definition: if you’ve been a fan of the last handful of albums, this one should fit your connection like a glove that you’ve had for years.