All you need to know, really, about Irish punk rockers Pogues is right in their name, taken from a Gaelic phrase meaning “kiss my arse.” Confounding expectation, they played softly as often as they played loudly, with heart prominently on their sleeve.
This forthcoming Very Best of compilation, due January 22, 2013 via Shout! Factory, underscores just how successfully the Pogues combined these seemingly incongruent styles. It also represents the crest of a wave of interest in the group not seen since their 1980s heyday, as the title track from 1987’s If I Should Fall from Grace with God somehow appears in a Suburu ad, and “Body of an American” finds its way onto the soundtrack of HBO’s “The Wire.”
“Dirty Old Town” — a shanty-shaking saloon singalong, tender and raw — is, actually, the perfect opening cut for any Very Best of set, even if it must (simply must) be followed by “The Sunnyside of the Street,” a song with the scruffy attitude of the Clash to go with its Emerald Island flourishes. There’s a similar complexity in the sequencing as “The Irish Rover” reels, while “Rain Street” simply rolls along — like a punky update of every scribbled, beer-stained ruffian’s poem. Over the course of 18 well-selected tracks, the Pogues’ blend traditional jigs, serrated DiY attitude and aching balladry with a still-staggering ease.
Only a band this complex could produce a single-disc set that’s so compulsive listenable. You’re just left wondering why the Pogues were never more famous.
After all, “Thousands are Sailing,” a powerful retelling of the Irish immigrant narrative, is as anthematic as anything U2 was putting out, if never as famous. “Streams of Whiskey” (the first song the Pogues ever performed live) ought to be the national anthem of St. Patrick’s Day, if that day weren’t so often ruined by amateur drunks. This song, really, is for professionals. At the same time, tracks like the lonely Yuletide number “Fairytale of New York” — a UK hit featuring the late Kirsty MacColl that helped break the Pogues in America — and the Jem Finer-written “Misty Morning, Albert Bridge” plumb a dark ruminative emotion. Such is the power and sweep of the Pogues.
The comparison with both the Clash and U2 would prove prophetic, as the Pogues eventually worked with U2 co-producer Steve Lillywhite on their 1987 major-label debut If I Should Fall, and then saw ex-Clash singer Joe Strummer take over for Shane MacGowan briefly in 1991 — when the singer/songwriter first split with the band in a dispute over his rampant alcoholism. MacGowan’s since returned, though he’s still involved with that struggle.
“Tuesday Morning,” for me, is their triumph, a heady combination of this propulsive groove, a plucky stringed counterpoint, and these strikingly raw lyrics. Spider Stacy seems to hollow out his soul here — and that’s been the best thing about the Pogues in general, and MacGowan in particular, over the years.
For all of MacGowan’s loutish, whiskey-sloshed behavior — he was so drunk at a performance as recently as 2002 that he reportedly threw up on the concert-goers in the front row — his sense of reckless abandon always included a willingness to reveal his own heart too.
It’s made the Pogues unlike most any band of their generation. And, quite frankly, unlike most others, too.
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