Review Summary: And a rovin a rovin a rovin I'll go
Using a mixture of conventional rock instruments and traditional Irish ones, The Pogues were to hit the big time shortly after the first wave of punk rock died and fell in a heap. This, along with their unique sound, would bring them a considerable amount of success in the mid to late 80's. The band possessed the rebellious spirit, political ire and compositional abilities to endear themselves to fans of folk and punk alike, and their legendary excesses did nothing to harm their allure. With 'Rum, Sodomy and the Lash' the band produced a wonderfully varied album which lurches spectacularly between the serious and the celebratory and between the fast and the slow.
Shane MacGowan would become notorious for his problems with substance abuse, but his vocal and lyrical contribution to this album reveals a man whose songwriting abilities more than match his capacity for alcohol. Take for instance the vividness with which he conjures up London's male prostitution scene on 'The Old Main Drag' and contrast that with his defiant howls on opener 'The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn' and it becomes clear that this is a lead singer who can transition from emotional peak to emotional trough in the space of two short songs. On 'The Old Main Drag' the protagonist sings of how he has been 'shat on and spat on and raped and abused' as he finishes his tale about his life as a rent boy, while 'Sick Bed' features the similar use of caustic and graphic imagery such as vomiting in church, a brothels and sexually transmitted diseases. The Pogues were not interested in sugar coating their material and nor were they, as some assume, just a band of drunks singing songs about drinking for the enjoyment of drunks.
'Sally MacLennane' is one track which certainly does cry out to be listened to with a large group of intoxicated friends. The song is pretty much an ode to the wonders of alcohol and the traditional Irish pub, and might be the most famous non-christmas song that the band wrote themselves. If it's one for a night in full swing, then 'A Pair of Brown Eyes' is a tune to accompany the hangover or the lonely walk home. Here we find MacGowan despairing about his lack of success with the ladies backed by swooning Celtic instruments, and the song would prove to be one of the band's most popular. Throughout the album's runtime, it is these instruments which conjure up sounds that exude warmth in a way standard rock instruments usually don't.
Half the songs on the record were not actually written by The Pogues. This might sound lazy, but they pull off a range of covers of both traditional and popular songs seamlessly, so that the casual listener is none the wiser as to which tracks were actually penned by MacGowan and co. Cait O'Riordan's vocal turn on 'I'm a Man You Don't Meet Everyday' is superbly executed and 'Dirty Old Town' is an engaging spin on the tale of industrial squalor that a vast number of artists covered both before and after the album's release, often far less interestingly. Also worth highlighting is the excellent rendition of 'And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda' which serves as a sombre closer. Eric Bogle's original is done justice as MacGowan injects just the right amount of emotion into his vocals, reflecting on the horrors of war and the ways it is memorialised.
'Rum, Sodomy and the Lash' is The Pogues' finest work, although some prefer the almost as good follow up 'If I Should Fall From Grace With God'. The album is packed with an impressive amount of variety, original material blending seamlessly with covers and instrumental numbers. The last thing MacGowan or his band could ever be accused of is being boring, and the almost complete absence of bad songs on this album is a testament to that. It goes down rightly as the album that captured the band at their emotional, intoxicated and brilliant best.