Author: Stuart Baillie
Copyright: (c) NME
This is what you want alright. Masses of soggy humour, mostly at the author’s expense. Wonderful, hully-gully grade rock’n’roll, all raggedy-arsed and perilous in its execution. A tearful come-all-ye, some binge- fired phantasmagoria, literary savvy and a fave rebel song to quicken the pulse. Shane MacGowan, you wastrel and dreamer, you ridiculously gifted auld shite, it sure is fine to have you back.
‘The Snake’ is a happy homecoming in many ways. Back to the spit spleen and absurdity of Shane’s ancient punk band The Nipple Erectors. Back to his dad’s old record collection – to those fierce and fantastic albums by The Dubliners, The Wolfe Tones and Johnny Cash. Back even to the emergent blamming glory of The Pogues’ opening shot ‘Red Roses For Me’. Shane’s been stock- taking and y’know, it sounds ace.
On 1990’s ‘Hell’s Ditch’, MacGowan’s last Pogues album, the singer sounded more cheery than he’d been in a long while. But it was an eerie document; he was at his best when he was pissing his pants, pummelling his ego on mighty drug sprees, playing poker dice in a deserted flat, reliving his childhood, made up by the realisation that he was finally “just a wally”. It was nirvana of a ghoulish, self-defeating sort.
Now it seems like Shane’s hilariously engaged in life’s messy business again. His love life is in chaos, so he goes on the razzle and it gets even more grubby and impractical. But he wants to commit and the result is a series of growling, grovelling notes to his muse. ‘Victoria’ could easily be autobiographical, given that Victoria Clarke, the writer, is indeed his squeeze, and that there really is a fat monk singing ‘Gloria”‘ to rival Shane around the Irish scene. Anyway, he’s unsnubbable, full of purpose, inspired to write like a king once more.
‘I’ll Be Your Handbag’ jerks and declaims like The Velvet Underground; he’ll be his girl’s most trivial accessory, with the proviso, I’d rather be your negligée. ‘That Woman’s Got Me Drinking’ has the boy similarly bedevilled, lining up the bottles, in love forever, while The Popes supply their own bawdy approval.
On every Pogues album you came to expect a heart-breakingly rich ballad – a ‘Brown Eyes’, a ‘Fairytale’ or a ‘Kitty’. The lineage carries on with ‘A Song With No Name’, which sways and washes, lyrical and lost. He writes it like he comes from another century – you’d swear the tune has always been around, and it probably has. And as the harp strums coyly and the pipes and the tin whistles give it some and the singer relocates that lovely tender voice you thought had deserted him after the Pogues fall-out, you’re just overwhelmed. A beauty.
Two songs deal specifically with the ghosts of Ireland past. ‘Aisling’ refers to an era in the country’s history when nationalistic expressions were outlawed by the British (how times change), and the artists instead took to writing ‘vision’, or ‘aisling’ poems. They beat the censors by portraying Ireland as a dark rose or a beautiful, ghostly woman, wandering through the night, craving release. Shane’s ‘Aisling’ cops that tradition and has been around for at least five years. It was unrecorded by The Pogues, but given a soulful treatment by Christy Moore. Shane’s new version is a more upbeat folkabilly romp, but it’s still cool.
The most famous aisling poem ever is ‘Dark Rosaleen’, written in the last century by James Clarence Mangan, a doomed, drug-eating romantic who reappears in Shane’s ‘The Snake With Eyes Of Garnet’. He becomes the singer’s spirit-walker, just as Brendan Behan took Shane by the hand in the first ever Pogues song, ‘Streams Of Whisky’, guiding him though life’s travails. Mangan gives Shane a talisman, a timeless, magical snake ring that allies him with artists of the past, compounding MacGowan’s already lurid mythology.
The snake idea is especially potent given that way back, they say that St Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland, clearing the island of all things lowly and un-Christian. Shane roundly trashes the religious propaganda (one of the multitudes of ironies about MacGowan’s homeland is that so many Paddies are named after a Welsh saint), and instead makes a case for keeping things primal, pagan and true.
And as with life, so with the music. Sometimes you wish that The Pogues’ more civilising influence was around (Jem and Spider appear very briefly), making those ballads more sensitive, arranging the tunes more tastefully, but then that’s no longer on the agenda. Because Shane basically wants to stomp, to revisit the rowdy music that got him into this job. Hence the basic fun of ‘The Rising Of The Moon’, a call-to-arms that’s routinely bashed out in every Irish boozer around closing time, or ‘The Church Of The Holy Spook’ which sets out the willing sinner’s manifesto most gleefully.
In short, Shane and The Popes are having a high time, writing well, making a racket, royally unique. The infernal world of Shane MacGowan is still very much ablaze. (7/10)