Review Summary: As sea-faring analogies go, Float definitely fits the description, but only just.
The concept of a nation developing a form of pseudo-history, peculiarly lacking in either self-criticism or impartial analysis, is nothing new or revolutionary. One has only to look at the stars and stripes-emblazoned textbooks of the United States for a mild example, while the long-running “History War” between Japan and China, (sometimes violently) debating the extent of the former’s culpability for the so-called Rape of Nanking, remains a deeply emotional issue to this very moment. In the case of the latter, many historians have quite rightly pointed out that there’s some advantage for both sides in prolonging the feud- in focusing attention on the other side’s crimes, they can each avoid facing up to their own peculiarly bloody histories.
In Ireland, it is far from uncommon for university lecturers to greet incoming history majors with the words: “forget everything you have learned about Irish history, for you shall not be needing it.” Mainstream Irish history, to state the point mildly, is a strange mixture of exaggeration and fiction, designed to elicit the often contradictory impression of a strong, proud warrior nation subjugated for eight hundred years by a cowardly, morally weak neighbour whose name we shall not speak unless politically advantageous. In crafting such a history, for popular history is indeed dictated by men, it has rarely seemed to cross their minds that perhaps the British don’t need demonising. That perhaps they’re quite capable of doing it themselves, and that perhaps acknowledging the virtues the old enemy has bestowed upon us might not be such a treasonous act after all.
Is all of this relevant, or interesting? Maybe not. However, it is fitting context in which to place Float
, Flogging Molly’s fourth studio album. Three and a half years in the making, Float
is the first of the group’s records to be recorded in frontman Dave King’s homeland, a country he left aged seventeen and was essentially exiled from for eight years while residing, illegally, in the United States. It’s no wonder, then, that the familiar imagery of post-Famine migration- that of coffin ships, huddled masses and sorrows drunk- rings particularly true for the singer, enabling him to revive old tales and tell some new ones with unrivalled empathy. More to the point, Float rings true the way the nauseating Yeatsian narrative of Irish history never could. In focusing upon individuals, their struggles and their vices, rather than a dubious history of military accomplishment, King unveils a dark and poorly represented chapter in Irish history with tenderness, skill and insight.
Opening track ‘Requiem For A Dying Song’ sets the pace with pulsating rhythms and infectious full band melodies, directing thinly-veiled venom at the movers and shakers behind the conflict in Iraq with the arresting introductory line: “There’s a government whip cracked across your back / Where the order of the day is don’t listen, attack.” ‘You Won’t Make A Fool Out Of Me’ takes the same ire and channels it against forces for greed within the music industry, delivering the invective: “you won’t sing when this singer is songless.” Each is relatively standard Molly fare, and perhaps neither manages to scale the heights of ‘Drunken Lullabies,’ ‘Tobacco Island’ or ‘Devil’s Dance Floor,’ but they do serve as the ideal padding for twin highlights ‘(No More) Paddy’s Lament’ and ‘Float.’
Bearing a passing resemblance to the between-albums single ‘Laura,’ ‘(No More) Paddy’s Lament’ references the famous Irish folk ballad of Irishmen driven to America and Lincoln’s Union Army by sheer force of poverty. Twisting the tragic dirge into a cause for celebration at a nation’s salvation, King remarks, “remember the gun and the damage it’s done / the last drop has been spilled for you and I” ‘Float’ is a totally different but related monster, a downcast but ultimately optimistic tale of isolation and mistreatment in a foreign land- one that clearly mirrors his own experiences, but could as easily be applied to the Irish in 19th Century America or immigrants all over the western world today. Melodically, ‘Float’ rivals anything in the Molly cannon, ‘If I Ever Leave This World Alive’ and ‘Death Valley Queen’ among them, patiently building from little more than acoustic guitar and vocals to take in the momentum of a full band.
Unfortunately, while King’s lyrical performance never dips, the remainder of the disc becomes patchy and inconsistent. The country-fueled ‘On The Back Of A Broken Dream’ sees King inhabit a square-jawed deadpan that would make Mike Ness blush, but is no melodic triumph despite an irresistible Bowie-esque middle eight. ‘Lightning Storm’ and ‘Between A Man And A Woman’ could have been produced at any Flogging Molly session over the past decade, and therein lies the problem; neither is distinctive or memorable enough to elicit any reaction other than vague familiarity. ‘Punch Drunk Grinning Soul’ invites the usually overstated comparisons with the Pogues, and hints of labelmates Gogol Bordello, with a gypsy-tinged mandolin (mandola?) motif and a heavy metal bridge, while ‘Us Of Lesser Gods’ provides another Molly classic on the back of a proud and affected vocal performance and Robert Schmidt’s lilting banjo lines.
As sea-faring analogies go, Float
definitely fits the description, but only just. Despite the conspicuous absence of a Nathan Maxwell pirate shanty, or an instrumental, that might have injected its middle ranks with some welcome momentum, Float
is rescued from abject tedium by the deep, poetic lure of the subject matter and a couple of genuinely outstanding compositions in ‘Float’ and ‘(No More) Paddy’s Lament.’ If Float
is to be viewed as a step backwards from Drunken Lullabies and Within A Mile Of Home, it’s a qualified one; Float
contains all the ingredients necessary for the band to keep moving forward, and undoubtedly they will continue to do so.