No one on Earth is as much fun as an Irish bullshit artist. (It can also be argued that no one on Earth is duller than an Irishman who is NOT a bullshit artist.) (And yes, I am half Irish, so don’t be starting with the angry emails now.) Larry Kirwan, the leader of New York’s Black 47, is an Irish bullshit artist of the first water. Kirwan’s songs are overstuffed with hyperromantic ravings, undisciplined wordplay, and things no honest man would say. But that is all okay, if you know what you’re getting into. Kirwan knows that he is an Irish bullshit artist in a long line of them. He carries a sacred trust by representing for his people.
And this is Kirwan’s master work, an album of songs that go along with his newly-published book of the same name—hell, it even says “With Songs by Larry Kirwan” on the front cover of the CD—so this is an album laying out his history and worldview and basic philosophy, all in one convenient package. Some of the songs are slightly seasoned, most of them are new, they’re all over the place. And they’re about as fun as they can be.
They are stunning works of blag, these songs. With absolutely no right to do so, he puts himself into the viewpoint of a scared American soldier in Iraq on “Downtown Baghdad Blues”, into the voice of a cuckold whose woman has left him for “The Girl Next Door”, and into the mind of an incarcerated Irish freedom fighter in “The Day They Set Jim Larkin Free”. Do we actually believe any of these incarnations? Nae we do not. Are we taken in by the young soldier rhyming “Giuliani” with “Ayatollah Sistani”, or by strained poetic language like “The stars are bleeding, night has come / The city sleeps in tears / Nothing to cling to but each other / Tomorrow, the same old fears”? Nae we are not. Do these songs, despite their literary “problems”, make real emotional sense and touch the soul and the heart and the brain? Yea, son, that they do.
Kirwan—like all great bullshit artists—is mostly just comfortable being himself. Since this is half a musical autobiography, we get a whole boatload of Kirwan. He tells us about his first rock and roll inspiration, Elvis Murphy, who played at his sister’s wedding when he was still in knee pants, and then urges old Elvis (in a very Dexy’s way) to keep his musical dreams alive. We get to hear about Kirwan’s “Uncle Jim”, a rebellious priest who loved horses, all manner of alcohol, and being an Irish bullshit artist. This tale, in which Uncle Jim and the young Larry Kirwan get hassled by Orangemen while on a whiskey-fueled trip to try to meet Ian Paisley, is completely unbelievable in all ways… except the ones that count.
Black 47 has had a long-run as a great hard-working New York band under Kirwan’s stewardship, and they really show their mettle here, careening wildly between rock and Irish music and funk and all manners of madness. I should focus more on the musicianship, singling out performances here and there, but it doesn’t really matter; Black 47 is a bar band, professional and versatile and unflashy, and there are no keening solos of note. They sound great, but they are not the show.
Larry Kirwan is the show. He bangs us through “The Bells of Hell”, describing a wild night at an Irish writer’s bar in which his married date ends up having a quickie with Nick Tosches (I think)—I haven’t decided whether or not we deduct points for having a guest appearance from Malachi McCourt as the bartender. He gives us a glimpse of modern ennui in “Liverpool Fantasy”: “And I’m sick of the dole and I’m sick of me life / And I’m sick of your politics and I’m sick of me wife / And I’m sick of your pity and I’m sick of bein’ fired / And I’m sick and tired of bein’ sick and tired.” And the three lengthy pieces at the end form a perfect suite: “History of Ireland, Part One” condenses hundreds of years of Irishness into one angry funny seven-minute history lesson; “Kilroy Was Here” turns an “Irishman in New York” story into something that contains Jesus and Montgomery Clift and the Marquis de Sade in one crazy Dylanesque romp; and “Life Is Like That, Isn’t It?” is the best novel you’ll ever hear.
He can’t sing a lick but it doesn’t matter. He has no sense of restraint but it doesn’t matter. He’ll sing whatever he pleases. If you have a beating heart and a love of crafty sloppy words you’ll love him no matter what he sounds like. If you don’t… well, may God and Larry Kirwan have mercy on yer soul, boyo.