The Pogues' basic stance – wild Irish boozehounds with a passion for traditional Celtic reels and squeals revved up to punk velocity – would be enough to arrest anyone's attention on the current sappy pop scene. That there's more to the group than simple stylistic gimmickry – a lot more – is the happy news delivered with its long-delayed third album, If I Should Fall from Grace with God.
The Pogues were never quite what their image suggested, of course: their electrifying ensemble cohesion betrays a musical rigor beyond the reach of the merely besotted, and their leader, Shane MacGowan, is too artful and emotionally complex a songwriter to quite fit the role of head souse. With this – their first LP since 1985's Rum, Sodomy and the Lash – the group stands revealed as the most inspiring trad-fusion band since Fairport Convention.
All of the Pogues' considerable art is apparent here in tracks like the lilting "Fairytale of New York" and the corrosive "Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six." The former sketches the transience of romantic love against the evergreen joys of yuletide. Duetting with singer Kirsty MacColl (the wife of producer Steve Lillywhite – who has imbued his LP with sonic kicks galore – and the daughter of the celebrated songwriter Ewan MacColl), MacGowan tells the tale of an expatriate love affair, which began in delight one long-ago Christmas Eve, when "the boys of the NYPD choir were singin' 'Galway Bay,'" but which has since hit the skids ("You scumbag, you maggot/You cheap, lousy faggot," MacColl sings, "Happy Christmas, your ass/I pray God it's our last"). The combination of seasonal buoyancy (conveyed by the arrangement's Gaelic pipes and lush strings) and personal disillusionment is unlike anything else in recent pop – as is MacGowan's voice, which, as always, sounds as if it had been marinated since birth in a mixture of gin and nicotine.
The two-part "Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six," on the other hand, is the Pogues' most overtly political statement to date, a cry of outrage over the allegedly unjust incarceration of six Irishmen for an English bombing. The track starts out as a wistful, muted ballad, then explodes into a raging assault, with MacGowan decrying the fate of the six men "picked up and tortured and framed by the law ... for bein' Irish at the wrong place and at the wrong time." The anger here seems very real, and the music puts it across like a punch in the face.
The rest of the album takes Celtic trad (fifes, accordions, bodhráns and all) into similarly uncharted stylistic waters, from the crazy cornball Orientalia of "Turkish Song of the Damned" and the effervescent pop of "The Broad Majestic Shannon" to the almost-out-of-control "Fiesta" (a sort of Spanish beer-hall raveup) and the bittersweet going-to-America anthem "Thousands Are Sailing." There are also straight trad snippets (most memorably the woozy "Worms"), a tumultuous big-band excursion ("Metropolis") and even a sod's lullaby (the gorgeous "Lullaby of London"). Obviously the Pogues can do it all. And it sounds as if they've only just begun. (RS 520)