Even if the results are mixed, at least the Murphys get some of their energy back on The Meanest of Times.
While the Dropkick Murphys' following could be more in flux nationally, their reputation in New England is pretty much bulletproof. And they've tested that bulletproof theory in recent years, with a handful of decisions that could only alienate fans and cast them as another bunch of media whores. Chief among these missteps is "Tessie", used in the awful Fever Pitch film and as an anthem for the 2004 Boston Red Sox. The song is irritating all on its own, but that it was jammed down anyone's throat in jamming range made it that much worse. The tune also signaled a low point for the band, as it was followed by The Warrior's Code, the band's weakest album to date. The Dropkick Murphys were at their end days, or so it seemed. But instead of fading out, they're back with The Meanest of Times, and it is at least a bit of a rebound.
Since their fantastic first album, Do or Die, the Dropkicks have been in a slow but steady decline. When original singer Mike McColgan left the band and Al Barr took his place, remaining band leader Ken Casey did his best to steer the ship. But with every release the songs got a little more derivative, a little more self-imitating, and with the exception of a few great songs ("Bastards on Parade" and "A Dirty Glass" in particular) everything started to meld together. Perhaps they were energized by the response to "I'm Shipping Up to Boston", their inclusion on The Departed soundtrack, because The Meanest of Times has some of the best songs the band has done in the Al Barr era.
Opener "Famous for Nothing" is typically anthemic, but with an energy that's been lacking from the past two albums. It also sets the stage for a disk full of romantic memory for a past often far from romantic. There's plenty of Catholic guilt and hell raising to be found in these songs, and it is in the childhood stories of booze and basketball, of loyal friends and minimum wage, that the band is at their peak. "Surrender" is the best track here, with a chorus that ropes you into singing along, instead of shouting a quick blue collar tagline. The song also featured some fantastic guitar work, substituting a surf riff for the power chords that populate the bulk of the album. "God Willing" is a straightforward break-up song, and when Casey wails, "It's the last time I'll put my arms around you, the last time I'll look in your eyes", it is one of the most believable moments on the album.
Where the Murphys start to run into trouble, though, is when they stray from the heartfelt childhood memories. "State of Massachusetts" is a DSS anthem, and also the inexplicable lead single. The song manages to waste a solid banjo riff by not only burying it in the mix, but also by stuffing in a tired broken home story full of way too many off-rhythm lyrics, sung by Al Barr with marbles in his mouth -- and his vocals are barely tolerable when they're clear. "Flannigan's Ball" finds the Murphys once again singing a (flat) drunken brawl tune and misusing help from members of the Dubliners and the Pogues. "Vices and Virtues" has a different, and more dubious type of romance to it, where it eulogizes a group of brothers killed by "Whiskey, war, suicide, and guns", and the band seems to attribute a kind of heroism to guys who we know nothing about, aside from how they died. Towards the end of the record, "Shattered" has the band condemning easy targets like 'roided-up athletes and perverted clergymen and by this point any thematic wheels have come way off the tracks.
The band also steers away from its signature Celtic elements more than it embraces them. Rather than mesh it with punk, as they've done in the past, there are distinctively Irish songs on the album, and only a handful at that. One of them, a ballad titled "Fairmount Hill", finds Al Barr trying his best Celtic croon, and failing.
In the end, The Meanest of Times is definitely a mixed bag, but it has glimmers of hope. The band sounds re-energized here, and while the quality of the songs is very up and down, they at least all have their muscle back. This album may not be the full-on revival of the Dropkick Murphys as they once were (and without McColgan at vocals, that may never happen), but it is a step in the right direction.