Dropkick Murphys come out swinging on their eighth full-length album, Signed And Sealed In Blood [Born & Bred Records/ADA]. This time around, everything has been cranked up past 10. The guitars are ballsier, the gang vocals are louder, the hooks are catchier, the lyrics stop you in your tracks. The brashest moments of Signed And Sealed In Blood feel like the last 30 seconds of a Stanley Cup hockey game: frenetic, on the edge, dangerous. The softest songs are testaments to the values that pump through the Dropkicks’ veins: family, neighborhoods, honor, respect, roots and remembering those who are gone. Every second of Signed And Sealed In Blood is evidence of one thing: Dropkick Murphys aren’t just loud and brash, they’re at the top of their game as songwriters.
It’s no accident. This time around, the band curtailed its always-on tour schedule — which means they played only a month of the biggest summer festivals in Europe — to take advantage of an unprecedented songwriting attack that started in the spring. They took a couple new songs on tour, weaving them into each night’s set. “Rose Tattoo” was a standout. At the Rock im Park Festival in Germany, at Hellfest in France, at Download Festival in England, the new songs moved the seas of DKM fans just as much as the band’s most beloved tunes. The band knew they were onto something. So after the last festival, they returned excitedly to new digs, a warehouse in South Boston that serves as a rehearsal space/clubhouse for writing and rehearsing with enough wall space to hang backdrops from tours past. The seven members convened to shape their trademark blend of guitars and acoustic folk instruments into the collection of songs before you.
Knowing this, it’s no surprise upon hearing the opening line of the opening song: “The boys are back and they’re looking for trouble.” …they most certainly are.
The Dropkicks’ music is universal stuff. Songs for the common man, about common things, that come together with such fury and infectious melody that everyone within earshot is struck straight. Dropkick Murphys, as much as any of the ‘punk’ or ‘blue collar’ labels they’ve earned, are fantastic songwriters. They are on the same quest as their beloved Woody Guthrie or their buddy Bruce Springsteen: how to get that big truth to come out the other end of the speakers in a way people all over the world will feel in their bones.
Back in the clubhouse, one song after another fell into place. In that final writing session, DKM felt the front door of the safe open wide. The code was being cracked on “Prisoner’s Song” which talks of “dreaming of a future where the ship comes in.” And on the yearning “Don’t Tear Us Apart,” which examines the highs and lows of our human nature: “When your spirits are down / And you’ve lost your way / And man’s character once again falls on its face / Will somebody please come / Aid those helpless in need / And renew our faith in this human race.” And on “My Hero,” with its heartfelt bridge, an ode to fatherly guidance: “My hero…my heart.”
While chipping away at this elusive songwriting code over the years, DKM succeeded in becoming many things to many different people. Some fans come for the unbridled punk rage. Some come for the band’s brand of wordy Irish folk. Some come to crowd surf and go out of their minds. No matter what, they come by the thousands, in a dozen languages, all over the world. And they always get what they came for.
The enterprise wasn’t always so sprawling. Dropkick Murphys started in the basement of a barbershop in Quincy, Mass., paving their own path, carting themselves around in a crappy van. Over the course of seven studio albums they’ve sold more than 4 million records, sold out venues on every continent with a stage and PA, and churned out the platinum-selling single, “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” the soundtrack to the climax of that Martin Scorsese Academy Award-winning film The Departed. Meanwhile, their 2011 concept record, Going Out in Style, boasted not only a fictional narrative co-written by “All Souls” author Michael Patrick MacDonald and guest vocals from Bruce Springsteen, but also debuted at #6 on the Billboard Top 200 with first-week sales exceeding 43,000. The second release on band-owned Born & Bred Records through Warner Music’s Independent Label Group (now known as ADA), it marked a big jump from the #20 debut of 2007’s The Meanest of Times and gave them their highest chart position to date. They’ve also become true hometown heroes, playing this summer’s Boston Pops’ annual 4th of July concert in front of over 250,000, and penning “Tessie” which became the theme song for the first Red Sox World Series win in 86 years in ’04. This band is truly at home wherever they go, whether it’s a punk club in Rome, or onstage with the finest classical musicians in the world.
After going deeper than ever on Going Out in Style, Dropkick Murphys made a conscious decision to return to their rough ‘n tumble Celtic punk roots for the next one. The only concept for Signed And Sealed In Blood was to make the definitive Dropkick Murphys statement.
“We wanted to write the catchiest songs we’ve ever written,” declares lead vocalist and bassist Ken Casey. “It was fun to follow a story on the last album, but Signed And Sealed In Blood is a reaction to that in a sense. We usually need a break from writing, but we just kept going as soon as ‘Going Out in Style’ was done. We wanted to make an aggressive and over-the-top album that exuded what we love about this band. Everything is a little bit bigger, a little bit louder, and a little bit clearer. We wanted to turn up the guitars and background vocals and make it sound like 10,000 people in a stadium. That’s the feeling.”
In order to capture that feeling, the band enlisted the talents of engineer James R. Brown (Foo Fighters) and Joe Chiccarelli (The White Stripes) for the first time along with longtime collaborator producer Ted Hutt. Holing up at Q Division Studios in Somerville, MA, they cut the entire record in a handful of impassioned sessions, quickly capitalizing on this hyper-creative period.
The band did take one short break from recording — when they received a last-minute invitation they couldn’t refuse, from their pals Mumford & Sons, to join the U.S. debut of their Gentlemen of the Road festival. So DKM made the quick trek up to Portland, Maine where they headlined the festival’s second stage as well as a late-night concert at the State Theater on the town’s main drag. But two shows in four hours didn’t stop DKM from the Signed And Sealed In Blood recording process. The next afternoon, along with producer Ted Hutt, DKM and M&S banjo player Winston Marshall repaired to a barn in the seaside town of Kennebunkport, Maine where Marshall wove his banjo into Jeff DaRosa’s parts on “Rose Tattoo.” The longstanding tradition of Dropkick Murphys collaborating with friends on their records has never sounded finer than on this song.
After the Kennebunkport barn session, the band returned to Q Division in Boston.
“There was an incredible team in the studio,” Casey explains. “I love how the guitars sound on this record. This is the first time we had a real mixer come in. Joe’s a Boston guy, and we hit it off with him. James did a great job with the engineering too. At this point, Ted’s like our eighth band member. He continued to motivate us to do what we do, but do it even better.”
That’s apparent on the first single, “The Season’s Upon Us.” Not only is it classic Dropkick Murphys, it’s a portrait of a dysfunctional Christmas — an instant classic in its own right. The group siphons their own brand of holiday cheer into a rousing anthem with wild riffing, an intoxicating chorus, and hilarious lyrics.
“When we wrote the music, it had a nice Christmas sway,” says Casey. “Everybody was like, ‘Write a Christmas song!’ So I sat down with a pen and paper, and I thought, ‘Fuck, there are million Christmas songs? How do you top the greats?’ I decided to go the other way and write something for the large percentage of the population who either don’t like the day itself or their families. I wanted to point out some realities. It’s more fun that way. There’s some sarcasm, humor, and truth. I think the world has enough timeless Christmas classics…it needs a few more for the poor jerk who has lost it all and has nobody or worse off has tons of family members who all suck worse than the next.”
Casey explains: “With new songs like ‘The Boys are Back’ we were trying to write an in-your-face song about coming back with another album so soon. We were also trying to write about being away on tour and the day you come home. It’s about kicking the door open — jumping back into your world and life. It sets the tone for the record, and it’s as big as it gets.”
Keeping up with a Dropkick tradition, “Rose Tattoo” is a reflection on family and commitment that’s literally Signed And Sealed In Blood.
“I was thinking about my tattoos when we wrote it,” he adds. “People carry important stories with them by having a tattoo. I have a rose tattoo on my arm, with lyrics from one of our old songs ‘Boys on the Docks’ — which are about my grandfather. The album title also comes from the ‘Rose Tattoo’ lyrics.”
It’s also emblematic of the bond that the group has forged with its diehard fan base throughout Beantown and beyond. Dropkick Murphys have become a culture at this point with countless fans brandishing ink of their own, as evidenced by the dozens of fans who got tattoos of the Signed And Sealed cover after the band posted the image on its website. The inside pages of the new album package are filled with photos of these fan tattoos. Many of the most diehard fans attend every one of DKM’s now legendary Boston St. Patrick’s Day concerts, some taking vacation time from their jobs, and traveling from around the world to contribute to the unhinged energy of these yearly celebrations.
Signed And Sealed In Blood is Dropkick Murphys at their universal best. “Our fans make us want to do this forever,” smiles Casey. “They live and die by this band as much as we do. We know who we are, and we always have. The key to a good Dropkick Murphys record is to have a little bit of everything: it makes you want to laugh. It makes you want to cry. It makes you want to punch someone in the face. It makes you want to be happy. We put our hearts and souls into our music. We’re very grateful that people respond.”
So, there you have it: another chapter of Dropkick Murphys legacy stands before you — Signed And Sealed In Blood.
– Rick Florino