Review Summary: Aging gracefully with no signs of slowing down.
I saw Dave King and Co. in 2016 with Frank Turner and Chuck Ragan, and at the time, you'da thunk Flogging Molly were touring in support of a Greatest Hits compilation. Wearing their relentless touring pedigree like a badge of honor, the Irish-American group's balanced playlist pulled from each of their previous five studio albums, with the raw-and-ragged Swagger
and Drunken Lullabies
having slightly greater emphasis to the more streamlined sounds of Float
and Speed of Darkness
(although Within a Mile of Home
's "The Seven Deadly Sins" justifiably kicked off the encore). Even King has joked that the band could play "If I Ever Leave This World Alive" 50 times in a row every night and people wouldn't mind.
The Molly-Turner-Ragan tour also premiered "The Hand of John L. Sullivan", which would ultimately make its way onto Life Is Good
, the band's sixth studio album in their 20-year run to date. Truthfully, Life Is Good
is a logical progression for the band, whose signature Celtic folk songwriting remains as robust as ever. As you would expect, their multi-layered songwriting exudes congruence with King's lyricism, a staple calling card throughout the band's discography. In songs like the caustic, marching "Crushed (Hostile Nations)" or anthemic, banjo-driven lead single "Reptiles (We Woke Up)", he weaves his observations and sociopolitical commentary through a gentler lens compared to the subversive soapbox-and-megaphone approach he opted for throughout Speed of Darkness
. Meanwhile, the 1-2 punch of the aforementioned "The Hand of John L. Sullivan" (no pun intended) and "Welcome to Adamstown" infuses King's imaginative historiographies with his seasoned vocals in the album's first quarter. In the same vein, the Irish-born frontman also acknowledges how certain flashbulb memories inform his perspective on the present and future with an overarching air of optimism. For example, look no further than "Hope", which is "still a shout away / Like it was yesterday / Away we shout once more". Altogether, these three themes are effortlessly interwoven throughout the record.
Life Is Good
's infectious gusto is palpable in spades, a tribute to producers Joe Chiccarelli and Ross Hogarth. Further, "Returning" drummer Mike Alonso, who had played with King in Katmandu during the early '90s, has a particularly pronounced impact on the record's energy. His rollicking fills in the second half of "Crushed (Hostile Nations)", the pace-setting snare in "The Hand of John L. Sullivan", and "The Bride Wore Black"'s thunderous rolls in the chorus drive each song's momentum. Collectively, the rest of the septet - Bridget Regan, Matt Hensley, Bob Schmidt, Dennis Casey, and Nathan Maxwell - seem to have developed undeniable chemistry in that each performer augments the others and gives songs room to flourish and breathe. Written in Open D tuning, "The Guns of Jericho" is a quintessential example, but their synergy is perhaps best exemplified in "The Days We've Yet to Meet", where Regan's violin is complemented by accordion, electric guitar, and hearty bass. Another obvious highlight that will assuredly tantalize in live settings is "Crushed (Hostile Nations)", which is Flogging Molly's heaviest song in recent memory. While the song's first third starts slowly, with fickle violin and King's throaty vibrato straining in spots, the song's transition into its explosive zenith, featuring copious distortion, gang vocals, and a searing guitar solo that mimics the tin whistle, is certainly memorable. The brass-laden "Welcome to Adamstown", coupled with copious hand-claps for antiphony, is decidedly brilliant in its juxtaposition: the vibrant instrumentation is in stark contrast to the reality of Adamstown and its citizens, who are merely "shadows in a ghost town" due to Ireland's sharp economic downturn and recession.
The record's title track, however, could be Life Is Good
's most powerful due to its immediacy. At the tour I mentioned earlier, King stated that "This Present State of Grace" was dedicated to his recently-deceased mother, who had died around Christmastime in 2015. When King and Regan had visited her in the hospital, King's mother had quipped, "Enjoy yourselves, 'cause I surely did." To always have a record of this conversation, King wrote "Life Is Good", incorporating that exact sentiment into a verse ("Come to me here / [And] whisper in your ear: / 'Oh, enjoy yourselves, I know I surely did'"). With "Life Is Good", it's evident that King invested significant emotional capital in ensuring that the song honors his late mother without alienating the listener, an effort in which he succeeds.
That said, Flogging Molly are consistently consistent, and just like their preceding albums, there are some missteps along the way. For instance, the meandering "The Last Serenade (Sailors and Fishermen)" doesn't pick up steam until its second half, and even then it's difficult to regain interest despite the shared vocal melody. Meanwhile, "The Bride Wore Black" feels like a bluegrass-soaked B-side that serves as a buffer between the sonically-similar "Hope" and wistful closer "Until We Meet Again". Overall, Life Is Good
is a cogent evolution in Flogging Molly's trademark Celtic folk sound and a welcome gift from a band celebrating their 20th anniversary this year.
"Welcome to Adamstown"
"The Days We've Yet to Meet"
"Crushed (Hostile Nations)"
"Reptiles (We Woke Up)"