Review Summary: The boys are back with an acceptable addition to their discography, but the reliance on their time-tested, conservative formula is dispiriting.
Brand recognition (or brand awareness) is an essential component in marketing. Good brands deliver the product's message clearly and concisely, while simultaneously substantiating its credibility in your mind. Some of the best commercials and advertisements connect with the target audience on a deeply emotional level. This motivates you to buy the product, and with repeated purchases, you are a loyal customer to this company. Coca-Cola proves to be a fantastic example: every Christmas season, those jolly polar bear mascots grace our televisions, encouraging us to open happiness. Every year, with each new commercial, a sense of familiarity and cheerfulness sets in, knowing that the holidays (and everything that comes with them) are right around the corner. For the Scrooges out there, it's an automatic reaction to spurn any and all sugary drinks. Similarly, almost everyone knows the gist of the 1991 study where preschool children could just as easily connect Joe Camel with cigarettes as they could match Mickey Mouse with Disney. In short, we all understand advertising to some degree and make meaning of its messages in our own unique way.
The same principle of brand recognition exists with Dropkick Murphys. Even without hearing a single note from the Boston outfit's eighth studio album, Signed and Sealed in Blood
, one can logically infer what to expect instrumentally and lyrically. Dropkick's trademark rowdy, rambunctious singalongs, where they seamlessly integrate punk aesthetics with traditional Celtic elements, are once again omnipresent on the record. For the latter, the band maintains its scally cap-tipping tributes to their working class roots, appealing to a significant populace who equivalently finds strength in fellowship, family, and community. As the aphorism goes: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it".
Such is the case with Signed and Sealed in Blood
. The turnaround time between 2011's superb Going out in Style
and this record is Dropkick's fastest to date, and given their track record of producing some impeccable tunes complemented by a few clunkers ("Don't Tear Us Apart" does the honors on this record; although it features some interesting lead guitar, it is the biggest offender in not treading any new ground), it'd be out of character to trash their blueprints in the name of experimentation.
For instance, "The Boys are Back" is a paint-by-numbers, tic-all-the-boxes romp complete with a rollicking rhythm section, a fist-pumping, hand-clapping final chorus, and Al Barr leading the charge. The track wouldn't fit anywhere else on the record, just like how "Hang 'em High", "Famous for Nothing", "Your Spirit's Alive", or "For Boston" deservedly kick off their respective albums. While "The Boys are Back" will undoubtedly translate marvelously live, its magnetism quickly fades on record. Also, for as much as we love The Warrior's Code
's "I'm Shipping up to Boston", "Prisoner's Song"'s introduction is arguably all-too-familiar. However, that damn accordion riff attacks your muscle memory, sparking the requisite foot-tapping and air-accordion playing that its predecessor induced (just with a tenor banjo, of course). Signed and Sealed in Blood
also sports a couple scorchers that Dropkick typically throws in on each album (the aptly named "Burn" is a vociferous piss-and-vinegar number, and "The Battle Rages on" features the album's strongest gang vocals amidst its chugging guitars), but as usual, they are not the album's strongest cuts. "My Hero" is a loving, affectionate nod-in-hindsight to fatherly wisdom and how it seems to only make sense when we're older, with a sturdy musical backbone. "Jimmy Collins' Wake" is akin to "Tessie" in terms of BoSox lore. It's a story-within-a-story of the Boston Americans third baseman/manager, whose players paid tribute to him at his wake the best way they knew how: getting sauced up and singing, followed by a trophy presentation ("Our days with you indeed were great / And now that you have crossed the plate and scored that final run of life / We'll hug your kids and kiss the wife / And tell of how you played the game and led us all to wealth and fame"). It's like the joke goes: what's the difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish wake? (There's one less drinker there.)
In contrast, Signed and Sealed in Blood
sounds absolutely divine on songs like single "Rose Tattoo", which features Winston Marshall of Mumford & Sons
on banjo. "Rose Tattoo" is beautifully mixed, with every trademark instrument - tin whistle, accordion, banjo, acoustic guitars, even the thunderous percussion - ringing clearly and fitting masterfully within the song's fabric without suffocating the listener. The track had significant potential of sounding overblown or being excessive, but the impressive instrumentation is bolstered by lyricist Ken Casey's elegant storytelling. "Rose Tattoo" accomplishes everything that personifies the best Dropkick Murphy songs that proliferate their discography: the motley instrumentation is sublimely written and brilliantly arranged while the lyrics unabashedly hit on everything that the band holds dear, from Boston sports ("This one's for our favorite game / Black and gold, we wave the flag") to family ("This one's for the man that raised me / Taught me sacrifice and bravery . . . This one's for my family name / With pride, I wear it to the grave") to their loved ones ("You'll always be there with me even if you're gone / You'll always have my love / Our memory will live on"). The rose tattoo signifies the band's mark for life; this track memorializes and immortalizes the band and its most significant memories, milestones, and people in their lives.
What's especially palpable on Signed and Sealed in Blood
is how much fun the Dropkick Murphys had in crafting these dozen songs while remaining steadfast in following their reputable game plan. The obvious highlight is "The Season's Upon Us", a holiday-themed number showcasing that not every holiday get-together is filled with tidings and good cheer. Personally, I can relate to Ken Casey's sardonic ode to dysfunctional extended families during Christmas ("With family like this, I would have to confess / I'd be better off lonely, distraught and depressed . . . They call this Christmas where I'm from"): my aunts flipped tables and threw punches over a board game
this year (concession statement: wine and whiskey, probably mixed together, was involved). Another undeniable highlight is the album's closing trifecta of "Out on the Town", "Out of Our Heads", and especially closer "End of the Night", whose somber piano masterfully parallels our despondence upon recognizing that last call's come and gone and our evening at the pub must come to a close.
Signed and Sealed in Blood
is a pleasant addition to the Dropkick Murphys' discography, but the reliance on their trustworthy, time-tested conservatism is somewhat unfulfilling here. Aside from "Rose Tattoo" and "End of the Night", there are no glaringly obvious stand-outs, although the biting sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek humor of "The Season's Upon Us" is wonderfully accompanied by its charming musical arrangement. There are no real surprises or deviations from the band's calling card, but that similarly shouldn't shock anyone, either. Topics of brotherhood, camaraderie, sports, family, and community continue to dominate the band's lyrics, and the punk/traditional Celtic hybrid sounds as replete and alive as ever. Sometimes, it's best to leave well enough alone, and if it ain't broke, why fix it?
End of the Night
The Season's Upon Us