Flogging Molly’s mixture of punk rock and traditional Irish music has always lent itself to songs about the struggles of working-class people. Frontman Dave King’s lyrics trade in equal parts hope and misery, although hope usually wins out. The band’s last studio album, Float, was recorded in Ireland and many of the songs were specifically concerned with that country. By the time the band finished their touring cycle for the album, though, the economy in the United States had collapsed. King and his wife, the band’s fiddler and pennywhistle player Bridget Regan, live in Detroit, a city that was already in rough shape before the autumn of 2008. So it’s no surprise that much of Speed of Darkness is particularly concerned with the state of America. King has been writing songs about these sort of conditions for a decade, and sadly, the rest of the country has reluctantly had to come around to his point of view.
Musically, Speed of Darkness is slightly tweaked from the band’s norm. Flogging Molly have occasionally stretched away from their Pogues-inspired Irish-punk template over the years, but this album is the most rock-based they’ve ever written. The guitars seem crunchier and a lot of the songs are genuinely mid-tempo. That’s unusual for a band that generally has two speeds; slow and easy or as fast as possible. Not that you’d know it from the album’s opener, the title track. “Speed of Darkness” begins with 35 seconds of gradually increasing guitar noise before exploding into a breakneck punk rocker, buttressed as always by Regan’s fiddle, Matt Hensley’s accordion, and Bob Schmidt’s banjo. Second song “Revolution” starts to dig in lyrically with King’s themes for the album: “I spent 27 years in this factory / Now the boss man says ‘Hey, you’re not what we need’ / The penguins in the suits they know nothing but greed / It’s a solitary life when you’ve mouths to feed / But who cares about us?” Musically, the song is a straightforward pop-punk track, with only Regan’s fiddle audible over all the guitars. A little later, “Don’t Shut ‘em Down”, with its unison quarter-note chorus, sounds like King has pulled out his old Social Distortion records for inspiration.
Elsewhere, the minor change in style pays off in spades. “The Power’s Out” is a slow, sparsely-arranged stomper that relies largely on thumping kick drum and Celtic-style strumming on a heavily distorted guitar. When the full band comes in, it enhances King’s impassioned delivery and makes up for the somewhat overwrought lyrics like “From the town of Detroit where my job is secure / Secure in the fact that it’s gone for good”. Late in the album, “The Cradle of Humankind” is a traditional piano ballad that smartly uses the fiddle and accordion to enhance the piano, an instrument the band hasn’t used much over the years. Speaking of instruments the band doesn’t often use, the gently rolling “A Prayer for Me in Silence” is a duet with Bridget Regan singing the verses and King on the choruses. Regan has a wonderful, soft singing voice, and it’s a great contrast to King’s gruff style. After hearing this song, it’s a wonder that the band doesn’t utilize her more as a singer.
Flogging Molly has long been an idiosyncratic band that doesn’t quite fit in with the punk crowd they started with, or the indie-rock and Americana styles that have popped up around them in the past decade. But they’ve developed their audience by sticking to their own sound, so they know better than to mess with it too much. Songs like the rousing “Saints and Sinners” and the quiet “So Sail On” are solid additions to their catalog that fit right in with their established formula. Still, it’s the songs where King and the band take chances that keep Speed of Darkness interesting. These curveballs make the album another strong addition to the Flogging Molly catalog and keep them from getting stuck in a rut.