The Pogues are a band that is so original, so talented and so beloved by so many that it is hard to find a place to start. This is complicated by the fact that Hell's Ditch, the Pogues' fifth album, can be considered a bookend to the band's career, marking the the final album with singer and primary songwriter Shane MacGowan and the last time the band would make a proper release for another three years (with the following release, Waiting for Herb, making some marked deviations from the band's previous output that set such work aside from the original two incarnations of the group). Despite being released on the verge of major shakeups in the Pogues both in membership and in style, Hell's Ditch nonetheless offers up a rich collection of songs that draw from the rough and fast days of Red Roses to the complex arrangements of If I Should Fall from Grace with God, making the album a wonderful statement of everything the MacGowan-fronted Pogues embodied.
The album starts off with the widely-loved "Sunny Side of the Street" and "Sayonara," two songs rooted in the classic blend of traditional instrumentation into a rock framework that worked to critical praise on If I Should Fall from Grace with God. Although neither song is inherently complex, one can't help but feeling the buoyant optimism of MacGowan as he professes to say on the sunny side of the street, nor resist the unexpectedly catchy, if somewhat unintelligble chorus of "Sayonara."
"The Ghost of a Smile" finds the Pogues of the near past and future rearing their head. With a straightforward rock approach rooted in a driving bass-and-drum base, the song is easily comparable to the stylings of both Waiting for Herb and their previous release, Peace and Love, and again draws questions of why a band as wonderfully unique and creative as the Pogues would seek to contain themselves within the confines of simple, single-making rock.
"Hell's Ditch," the album's title track, follows up as the band's first, but not last, foray into nautical and world sounds. Featuring a long instrumental lead-in to a rather simplistic song, "Hell's Ditch" shows many sides of the Pogues. From their ability to master traditional styles other than Irish folk (this example being what sounds like traditional sea songs) to their ability to take a simple song and build it up to a rather complex, winding adventure, this song highlights the Pogues' creativity at its best.
"Lorca's Novena" and "Summer in Siam" are two more forays at mixing world styles into the Pogues' Irish roots and rock base. "Lorca's Novena" is a dark Spanish-influenced verse/melody blended with a brighter, rock-dominated chorus that, after a few listens, offers much to the attuned ear (the opera voice in the background never fails to arouse a smile, nor does the seeming opposite tonal qualities of the verse and chorus). "Summer in Siam" is a piano and flute-driven number that seems to defy any genre other than world. Although many listeners would be thrown off by the dreamy key, harp and saxophone sections that comprise this song, this relaxing ode to self-peace not only oddly fits well as an oddly peaceful and uplifting moment on an album that seems always stretching for the outer limits, as well as what seems like a moment of peace for the notoriously wild MacGowan.
After "Summer in Siam"'s dreamy listlessness, "Rain Street" fires back as arguably the best song on the album. Featuring the band's Irish roots rock at its best, the bouncy and bright melody over MacGowan singing about such uplifting moments as kids sniffing glue and girls hawking their possessions. Aside from the song's wonderful arrangements (slowly from a catchy traditional rock blend into a powerful instrumental climax), the song highlights--possibly for the last time--MacGowan's wonderful abilities as a storyteller, painting a scene that is vivid enough to envoke thoughts of Dickens (but thankfully in a few thousand less words).
"Rainbow Man," a Terry Woods number, is up next, with a guitar and banjo lead that seems more at home on Waiting for Herb. However, what the song lacks in variety, it makes up for in solid songwriting and just enough innovation to make it a sleeper on the album.
"Wake of the Medusa" comes next, and is unquestionably one of the better songs the Pogues have ever put out. With a drum roll-driven background, the song revisits the scene depicted in the Gericault painting adorning the cover of Rum Sodomy & the Lash. With creative lyrics, a wonderful nautical interlude between verse/chorus segments, tons of energy and wonderful simplicity, this song makes you contemplate whether it wasn't originally conceived during the writing of Rum Sodomy & the Lash.
"House of the Gods" follows, with a bouncy melody and somewhat indistinguishable lyrics. Although fun, the song delivers none of the depth of other catchy numbers like "Rain Street" or "Sunny Side of the Street." "5 Green Queens & Jean" immediately follows as an accordion-driven number with a Spanish and/or Cajun feel to it. Although a first listen might, like "Summer in Siam," write off this song as an oddball, closer listens reveal not only the Pogues' magnificent ability to take widely varying influences and make them their own, but also MacGowan writing some heartfelt lyrics that, for a man at the end of his career with the band and drinking at an all-time high, reveal a surprising amount of optimism and contentedness. A second sleeper of the album that can't help but grow on a listener.
The band walks into the last two songs of the album proper with "Maidrin Rua," a traditional Irish number that is short, sweet, and fun. Though lacking the vision of numbers like "Metropolis" or catchiness of "Planxty Noel Hill," it is nice to get a non-lyrical song this close to the end. The album rounds out with "Six to Go," which unquestionably draws to mind traditional songs of the Carribean. Although not near "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" or "The Broad Majestic Shannon" (I'm not counting "Worms" here) in power, vision or sheer quality, it is a sleepy number that rounds out the album (and the band-proper's career) like finally finding a bed after a long night of drinking.
Hell's Ditch as an album, despite the turmoil the band was going through (MacGowan is clearly less articulate than on previous albums, which says a lot) and the clearly divirging creative directions of its members, ends the band's career with a strong and largely underrated album. Although not quite up to par with their two magna operas--Rum Sodomy & the Lash and If I Should Fall from Grace with God--Hell's Ditch can proudly stand in the catalog as an album eclectic in its influences and earthy in its approach and songwriting. The album features a majority of songs written by MacGowan or the successful MacGowan/Finer partnership, more successful variances of style than on any other of their albums while staying true to the band's core sound, and overall the sound of a band who, no matter what personal problems were causing, had an amazing chemistry and love of making music that translates easily for listeners from all walks of life.
The remastered reissue also contains a slew of other tracks from various releases. Most notable are another single collaboration with the Dubliners. The A side track is "Jack's Heroes," a bouncy and fun number in ode to Jack Charlton's Irish National Football squad that is rooted in the styles of If I Should Fall from Grace with God. The B side, also included, is a cover of "Whiskey in the Jar," which is identically patterned after their previous collaboration on "The Irish Rover," which is simply a Pogues-style take with the Dubliners playing (and more notably, the late Ronnie Drew providing vocals opposite MacGowan). "Bastard Landlord" appears as another, slower If I Should Fall from Grace with God-sounding number (think "Broad Majestic Shannon") bashing the greed and methods of landlords and is one of the strongest tracks to be found in the extras. "Infinity" and "The Curse of Love" are two more numbers that, though fronted by MacGowan, mirror the band's future, more rock-oriented efforts without MacGowan, although they are catchy enough to wonder why they never found a home on a later album. "Squid Out of Water" is a western-influenced instrumental that compares clearly to "A Pistol for Paddy Garcia," and is a great showing of the band's ability to write fun and bouncy instrumental numbers that are as creative in arrangement as they are unique. The last song is the remix of" A Rainy Night in Soho" released in 1991. Overall, though some gems like "Bastard Landlord" and "Squid Out Of Water" make the extra songs interesting, these additions are clearly the cuts that didn't make it onto the Rum Sodomy & the Lash and If I Should Fall from Grace with God re-releases--great for fans but not any deal-breakers to be found.