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35 years later, ‘Rum Sodomy & the Lash’ retains all its power

| Thursday, September 10, 2020

Mary O'Reilly | The Observer

“Don’t talk to me about naval tradition. It‘s nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash.” Like most of their 1985 masterpiece, the title of the Pogues’ greatest achievement is borrowed from somewhere else. Drawing upon sources as disparate as ’40s pop hits, centuries of Irish mythmaking and Winston Churchill’s above quote about the British Navy, “Rum Sodomy & the Lash” is the culmination of the Pogues’ singular strangeness, an album whose whole is much more than the sum of its impossibly divergent parts. 

Fresh on the heels of 1984’s roughshod debut “Red Roses for Me,” “Rum Sodomy & the Lash” turns away from the covers of the Pogues’ first album in favor of increasingly heartfelt songwriting from frontman Shane MacGowan. A disheveled bard who split the difference between Van Morrison and the single drunkest karaoke performer you’ve ever seen, MacGowan’s shambling vocals came to define the Pogues’ one-of-a-kind mix of Celtic music and British punk. Painting bruised portraits only in shades of black and blue, his depictions of Irish life on “Rum Sodomy & the Lash” reframe every character through the lens of MacGowan’s own naked emotion and fascination with history. Opening track “The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn” takes the titular Celtic hero and fashions him into a mid-century Irish Republican, drinking with intelligence agents in Madrid between bouts of fighting fascists; later on, MacGowan borrows the name of the stout Sally MacLennane to create a wistful tale about falling head over heels for a bartender. 

The beauty of MacGowan’s writing is in how beguilingly he switches between points-of-view; album highlight “A Pair of Brown Eyes” starts with a seemingly pedestrian account of drinking alone in a bar before an old man starts up a conversation with the narrator, and the song takes a sharp left turn into the memory of the elder patron. Here, the narrative shifts from drowning sorrows to a horrific first person account of an unnamed war — “In blood and death ‘neath a screaming sky / I lay down on the ground … some cursed, some prayed, some prayed then cursed / then prayed and bled some more.” The two men, already begrudgingly connected through their shared location, then join together in a tribute to lost love — “And a rovin’ a rovin’ a rovin’ I’ll go / for a pair of brown eyes” — that is itself lifted from the traditional Irish song “Wild Mountain Thyme.” The effect of combining the two POVs is shocking both in its audacity and its success; imagine if Billy Joel interrupted “Piano Man” to start reading from “All Quiet On The Western Front.” Rather than collapsing under the weight of its own ambition, the song remains one of the best expressions of MacGowan’s extraordinary talent.

Of course, none of MacGowan’s writing on “Rum Sodomy & the Lash” would work without an adequate backing band, and the tracks undergirding the frontman’s storytelling are where the Pogues did their finest efforts as a collective. Drummer Andrew Ranken pounds out slyly danceable beats on tracks like the outtake “London Girl” and the aforementioned “Sally MacLennane;” elsewhere, Spider Stacy’s tin whistle and Jem Finer’s banjo fill in the margins of the soundscapes recorded by producer Elvis Costello. Along with his lyrics, repeated listens have revealed MacGowan’s piano playing and singing as the secret MVP of the band’s success. While nobody’s idea of a good singer or pianist on a technical level — he often spat out syllables in the same way that rugby players discard their teeth — MacGowan carried songs on the force of pure emotion alone. The down-and-out anthem “The Old Main Drag” undercuts its own seriousness with MacGowan’s tongue-in-cheek delivery, while bonus track “A Rainy Night in Soho” would tip over into saccharine territory if not for the bared-heart conviction with which MacGowan sings and plays.

The Pogues’ mastery isn’t limited to their own songs; “Rum Sodomy & the Lash” finds the group recording definitive versions of traditional Irish and English folk songs, taking songs from their youths and dragging them into Thatcher’s 1980s. Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town” and Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” are transformed from their somnambulant original forms into vital, strikingly alive documents. Most impressive of all is bassist Cait O’Riordan’s haunting, plaintive take on the centuries-old “I’m A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day,” where her low-key reading both emphasizes and rejects the gendered power of the original lyrics. 

Recent CD and streaming reissues of “Rum Sodomy & the Lash” — including those released this year for the album’s 35th anniversary — have included the six-track outtake EP “Poguetry in Motion” as bonus material, a move that adds both the worst and best songs the Pogues recorded during the “RSL” sessions. The grating, insistent “London Girl” wastes some of MacGowan’s most striking lyrics — “If you cut me, don’t you think I’ll feel? / Is this body clay, this heart made of steel?” — on a tedious full-band performance that embraces the worst of popular Irish music. Rather than the Pogues’ usual repudiation of the lowest-common-denominator impulses of groups like the Dubliners, “London Girl” offers up the kind of pseudo-Celtic drivel you would expect to find in a memorabilia kiosk at the Dublin airport, not on the band’s superlative work. 

One of “London Girl”’s fellow bonus tracks, however, stands alone as the peak of the Pogues’ and MacGowan’s long career. The epic “Body of an American” is Irish diaspora as directed by David Lean, spanning generations and Irish strongholds on both sides of the Atlantic. Traveling from Dublin to Pittsburgh and back again, MacGowan’s eulogy for a fallen Irish-American boxer is packed with references to decades of Irish culture — “Slainte Joe / and ‘Erin go’ / my love’s in Amerikay.” The band matches MacGowan’s efforts, chiming in on the song’s hook — “I’m a free born man of the USA” — and weaving in and out of the track’s cyclical, entrancing closing. 

The outro of “Body of an American” is an astonishing piece of wordless music, each instrument playing individual variations on the main riff before circling back to the same central figure. Even as the track fades out, the impression remains that the band will keep playing together for measures, for hours, for generations after the tape stops rolling — a closing fit for an album that has only grown more ageless in the 35 years since its release. 

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