If any band is well-positioned to write songs influenced by the opioid epidemic eating through New England, it’s the Dropkick Murphys. Not only are the Boston rockers active in the recovery community through their Claddagh Fund charity, singer Al Barr got a particularly personal kick in the teeth when his brother-in-law died of an overdose.
Loss and the possibility of redemption represent the twin themes of pain and glory fueling the Celtic-punk band’s ninth album, a collection of songs by turns bleak and triumphant—and sometimes both at once. All the Dropkick Murphys’ trademark elements are at work: the heart-pumping hardcore adrenaline and shout-along choruses that helped the band break through on songs like “Tessie” and “Shipping Up to Boston,” along with tunes that pare back the bombast to show glimpses of gruff emotion, like a linebacker wiping away a tear with a ham-hock fist—especially a punked-out cover of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Carousel; and “4-15-13,” a mournful requiem for the Boston Marathon terrorist bombing that killed three and wounded 246.
The album opens with a guitar feeding back over a rumble of drums and the lonesome piping of a tin whistle on “The Lonesome Boatman,” before charging into a thicket of wordless vocals and chugging guitars. On “Blood,” an anthem for the troublemakers, bagpipes double the imposing guitar riff as Barr & Co. promise, “If you want blood, we’ll give you some.” There’s a less frenetic vibe on “Sandlot,” a song of rueful nostalgia for an impoverished youth full of stickball and petty crime.
When the band sings about trying to pull out of the spiral of addiction, as they do on several of the songs on 11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory, they’re forthright about the odds. The clangorous “Rebels With a Cause” takes a sympathetic look at “dead-end kids” who are all too easy for society to write off, while “Paying My Way” celebrates the fierce pride of getting up again, however shakily, after a fall.
For all the serious subject matter here, the Dropkick Murphys haven’t lost their taste for fun. It’s the bare-knuckle variety on “I Had a Hat,” where singer/bassist Ken Casey upends an Irish wake when his new chapeau goes missing, engaging in a raucous call-and-response with the band. “Kicked to the Curb” is an energetic lovelorn number, while “First Class Loser” is about that relative or neighbor (or president-elect) who people can’t stand: “He’s a bully, he’s a jerk, he’s everything that you despise/ But you can’t just tune him out because he’s too loud to ignore,” Barr and Casey growl, trading lines.
In their own way, the Dropkick Murphys are also too loud to ignore. The difference, especially on 11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory, is that their message is usually worth hearing.