When Dropkick Murphys announced their new album, This Machine Still Kills Fascists, Ian and I were beyond excited. We love Dropkick Murphys! Then, we heard that it was going to be entirely acoustic and we thought, “This is going to be something special!” Anyone familiar with Dropkick Murphys should not have been surprised that a fully acoustic album was well within the fellas’ repertoire, considering the acoustic elements featured on their last album, Turn Up That Dial, as well as the fact that so much of traditional Irish music is purely acoustic. When we heard the entire album was written around previously unreleased Woody Guthrie poetry and lyrics, our minds were collectively blown.
We could not wait to hear it!
But, we wondered what the reaction from the fans was going to be. I remember telling Ian, “Some of the fans aren’t going to get it. How many know who Woody Guthrie is? How many know about the Dropkick Murphys’ existing connection to him?” Ian replied with his typically brilliant insight, “Anyone who hates this album or dismisses it on its face is missing the entire point. This album is as true to the roots of Dropkick Murphys as it gets. It is an entire album dedicated to the working man, to labor unions, to fighting fascism, fighting for workers’ rights and that’s what Dropkick Murphys has always stood for and sung about. There could not be a more perfect match between what Guthrie believed, promoted, wrote and sang about, and what Dropkick Murphys have always been about. This album is a true protest album — it doesn’t get more punk than that!” Truer words, lad, truer words.
When I heard the new single “The Last One” for the first time, I absolutely loved it. Structurally, it was extremely different than past Dropkick Murphys songs; it almost causes a whiplash sensation when focusing on expectations of what a Dropkick Murphys song ‘should be’. However, it is as much of a Dropkick Murphys song as it was a Guthrie protest song. There was no daylight between what Dropkick Murphys has sung about in the past and the use of Guthrie’s brilliant words written more than 60 years ago and used on this song. But, people online were already starting to bitch about it:
“This isn’t punk!”
“What happened to DKM?”
“Oh man, they got old and got soft!”
“THIS IS NOT PUNK ROCK, THIS IS CRAP!”
Shortly thereafter, lead singer Ken Casey went on an epic rant during a show in eastern Pennsylvania after walking through the line of vendor tables and seeing stacks of merch with divisive political messages. He got onstage and went off, expressing his feelings and condemning certain far right views that appear to be flirting with fascism or fascist ideology. Casey yelled at the crowd “you’re being duped by the greatest swindler in the history of the world” and “by a bunch of grifters and billionaires, who don’t give a shit about your or your family”! When that rant went viral, even making national cable ‘news’ broadcasts, the comments on social media went nuts. Some highlight comments were along the lines of “Stay in your lane bro!”, “Stick to music and stay out of politics!”, “Liberal idiot! You and your band suck!” and, my favorite, “You just lost a fan!”. Ian and I just shook our heads and laughed. “Stay out of politics”… really? Have you never listened to a Dropkick Murphys album? Have you never seen them live?
Have you missed out on the point of punk rock altogether?
Did you never learn about the roots and messages behind so much of American folk music? Have you never really delved into the brilliance that is Woody Guthrie? Do you not know what “This Land Is Your Land” is about and where it comes from? Clearly not.
Music has always carried messages — especially politically-charged messages. It has frequently been about protesting and telling stories about the oppressed and fighting the powers that be. There have ALWAYS been songs about politics. Ian stated eloquently, “Music has always been a vehicle for poetry and poetry has always been a vehicle for politics. For artists like Woody Guthrie and Dropkick Murphys on this new album, the poetry is there, but the political messaging takes centerstage.”
American folk music is the sounds of the people and their picket lines.
The genre, at its heart, is driven by politically and socially-charged messages and acts as the ultimate vehicle for protest poetry. It is frequently the most rebellious music there is and Woody Guthrie is one of the greatest American folk musicians and warrior poets the country has ever known. Guthrie lived through some of the most dangerous, depressed and turbulent times for the working man, for the common folk and for the poor and impoverished. His words supported labor, unions and economic equality. His words flew directly in the face of the rich, the powerful and those who would try to hold the working people down. This is in direct line with so many beliefs and words from the Dropkick Murphys over the years and is never truer than now.
Another important thing to know about folk music is that it is traditionally passed down from one to another: from family member to family member, singer to singer and from generation to generation. It was not uncommon for the person receiving the song to put their own spin on it, to change it to be the most relevant to their moment, their strife, their journey and their fight. This is exactly what This Machine Still Kills Fascists is; it is taking the written words of Guthrie from over 60 years ago and creating original Dropkick Murphys music for them, based on the current views and experiences of Dropkick Murphys.
It is pure American folk and it is pure punk rock.
This is not the first time Dropkick Murphys have delved into the greatness that is Woody Guthrie and his unpublished words. Their song “Gonna Be a Blackout Tonight” from the 2003 album Blackout used Guthrie’s lyrics, as did the massively popular “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” from their 2005 album The Warrior’s Code. If you missed it before, are you starting to see it? Dropkick Murphys did what so many have done before in folk and protest music; they have taken what came before and made it their own, and with This Machine Still Kills Fascists, they have done it masterfully. While it is not the mosh-inducing, three-bar power chords with tin whistle and pipes so many Dropkick Murphys’ fans are used to, this album is nonetheless brilliant and each song shows the strength, convictions and passion the band possesses.
The first song on the album, “Two 6’s Upside Down”, is as familiar a message as any early country or folk song. It is great old country-style song, reminiscent of legends such as Cash, Jennings and Williams. It is a song about a working man, down on his luck and losing the last thing he loves — his woman. He takes out his pain and vengeance on the man who took her away, gunning him down and getting 99 years. He loses everything, gets sent away and laments that he still has 99 to go. There is a great traditional bass line in the song and it evokes so many memories of past country and early Rockabilly stylings, mostly lost in today’s modern country music.
“Talking Jukebox” is the second song. Now, Ian and I have differing opinions as to the meaning of the song: on its face, the song is about the experiences of the frequent bar patron, something that so many in the working class were in Guthrie’s time. It talks about knowing everything about the patrons, knowing their stories, their desires and their secrets. The evocative lines express:
“I’m a jukebox standing in a joint, I’m all lit up with pretty-colored lights
I’m a bum, I’m a beggar for nickels and dimes
But, I’m your millionaire a thousand times
I watch you come in here, come through the door
I watch you take a drink or three or four
Then I wink at you with my electric eyes
Carry you away to paradise
I’m a two-, I’m a four-, I’m a 12-bar beater
I’m pretty honest, I’m partly a cheater
There’s a million human skulls in here fighting away
Now, let me tell you what they’re fighting for…”
To me, these lyrics are clear: this is a song about guys in a bar, shooting the shit and dropping their hard-earned money in the jukebox to have a moment of relief, fantasy or escape. It’s about how music can be used to tell the stories of their lives and how those songs can be used in protest and, most importantly, about how that music can heal and bring us together. It’s true American folk. However, by reading between the lines, Ian sees that the song could take on a more salacious meaning. What else did working guys frequently spend their money on in old bars…? Where they could share their “secrets” and get carried away to “paradise”? Would it be shocking if that was the underlying meaning? Nope. Alas, only Woody knows what he was really describing. The song is really catchy with Casey on the vocals and becomes even more upbeat and raucous when multiple voices join in on the chorus.
The next song is my favorite on the album, aside from the final song.
“Ten Times More” is a genius song, with a great marching beat. The first time I heard it, my head was bouncing along. Now, while you aren’t likely to find a circle pit forming when Dropkick Murphys go on their purely acoustic tour supporting this album in the fall, if one does pop up, this is the song that will be playing. Honestly, the sick, droning, marching beat makes me want to start a pit and slow walk it arm-in-arm with my son, but Ian would have already started that pit and left me to my own devices. But, I digress. This song is a pure working man’s song. It is a labor song. It is about the struggles of the working man, working his ass off, getting a fraction of the credit and benefits, and having to do everything 10 times harder just to get the same credit as the rich man. The song encourages the working class to never give up and continue to fight, even if 10 times harder. It is such as great labor song, easily evoking images of workers chanting it on the line.
Next up on the album is “Never Git Drunk No More”, which Casey duets with American country singer-songwriter Nikki Lane. The song is about a guy who cannot shake his demons and promises to stop drinking for his love; she responds in repeated disbelief and threats of leaving him. It is a song as old as time, especially for those barely scraping by. Lane’s beautiful and haunting voice pairs perfectly with Casey’s in this tragic love song, but who does the singer love more, his girl or the drink?
The fifth song is “All You Phonies”. Guthrie wrote the words in 1944, after the birth of the Maritime Union in May of 1937. The forming of the Union followed a 10-week strike over the treatment of seaman who refused to sail for poor wages aboard the ship California in 1936. The words are from the perspective of a unionist and their fight to gain a better wage and improved conditions, but also talks back to those who didn’t understand the struggle. It’s a great driving song and has the most punk feel with the guitars and drumbeat. Casey’s voice and the group chorus scream Dropkick Murphys.
“The Last One”, which it is not, is a powerful song that hammers on the lip service so many in the working class get from the bosses, political leaders and the rich. It preaches about the treatment so many receive, how hard times are and how deep the hypocrisy goes. The song features the additional vocals of Evan Felker from the Turnpike Troubadours, a band many Dropkick Murphys fans are undoubtedly familiar with. Felker is from Okemah, Oklahoma — Guthrie’s town of birth. It is a great song with some powerful and unyielding lyrics:
“How can you call a man a man
When you treat him like a dog?
And, how can you call a man a man
When you kill him like a hog?
How can you call him an eternal soul
And grind him in the dirt?
And, how can you say a fella’s free
Chained down and tied to work?
She’s upside down, she’s broke apart
And getting worse every day
A working man’s hand is the hardest card
In the whole damn deck to play
She’s upside down, she’s broke apart
And getting worse every day
A working man’s hand is the hardest card
In the whole damn deck to play“
These words are as timely now as they were when Guthrie wrote them.
It is the age-old adage of ‘the rich are getting richer, while the poor are getting poorer’. The musical stylings are pure country, but almost take on zydeco rhythm and stylings. Musically, it will have you bopping your head and tapping along.
The seventh track, “Cadillac Cadillac”, sings the story of the working man’s dream car of an era gone by. For a generation, part of so many the working men’s ‘American Dream’ was to own a Cadillac. It was a treat — a self-indulgent one with power seats and power windows — and a symbol that they had worked hard and earned something glorious. While the times may have changed and the Cadillac brand may only be available to the wealthier now, the message in the words showed a sense of true pride and a feeling of having ‘made it’. And, let’s be honest, is there anything that screams ‘punk’ more than a slammed 60s Cadillac Eldorado? This is a really evocative song, with a great driving beat (see what I did there?) and feels like a song that could have easily come out of the 1960s rock scene.
The next track, “Waters Are a Risin’”, is literally about a ship during war time being struck by a torpedo and going down with many sailors trapped inside — coming to terms with their inevitable fate. Moving through the emotions involved in reconciling one’s impending doom and finding the pleasures in life that are left in those last fleeting moments is the theme. It is a song about the coming together of those with a common fate and no hope in sight, but having a laugh, a smoke and some liquor while coming to terms. While the song is literally about a shipwreck, it has a plethora of metaphorical potential meanings; it could easily be focused on the country during Guthrie’s time before WWII… when monopolies ruled and workers had little. It could also easily be a song about sailors facing their doom in WWII. As history tends to repeat itself, the song could be about the current state of the country and all hope being lost. This song is probably closest to an acoustic version of the typical Celtic stylings so many are used to from Dropkick Murphys.
The piano arrangement is quite beautiful and haunting.
The penultimate song, “Where Trouble Is At”, is a fight song. It is a warning to those who would stand in the way of the working man. It is a song that evokes the literal physical battles that ensued in the past between labor and management and anyone dumb enough to cross picket lines. This is another awesome upbeat song with both Celtic and zydeco influences. If this song had a washboard strum, I would call it ‘Cajun’ to be sure. Lyrical content aside, it is a fun and upbeat song musically.
I will let Ian take this last one entirely:
The final song on the album is arguably the best on the whole album. On “Dig A Hole”, the boys in Dropkick Murphys share the microphone with none other than the legend himself, Woody Guthrie. The song takes lyrical stylings of Guthrie from a recorded demo and pairs them with the vision of Dropkick Murphys. The modern harmonizing from Dropkick Murphys, with a demo recorded so long ago, truly gives me chills. Directly, the song is about WWII and fighting against fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain. Interesting to note, for most of his life, Guthrie was antiwar and initially against intervening in WWII. However, when the attacks on Pearl Harbor took place, Guthrie began openly supporting the war to end the horrific rise of fascism. When I first heard the song, I was blown away. Hearing Guthrie sing along with Dropkick Murphys was unreal and moving.
This song is the capstone; it is the thesis of the entire album.
While it is a song about WWII, all you must do is change a few words and names and it is the perfect protest song for the world today. Change “Hitler” and “Goring” to “Putin” and “Orban” and it takes on a whole new meaning, usable in a whole new context. The fact that a song written by Woody Guthrie can be performed by Dropkick Murphys and then adapted even further to become a modern song perfectly demonstrates the adaptability that is so key to the survival of folk music. This song kills fascists. It is the perfect finisher to a fantastic album.
Dropkick Murphys worked directly with Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, and her son Cole (who even played on the album) to go through thousands of pages of unreleased lyrics and poetry. Casey carefully scanned through countless lines of prose to find the ones that spoke to him the most. Nora and Dropkick Murphys have had an ongoing relationship and this is their third effort in combining forces to bring Woody’s words to life in the form of Dropkick Murphys songs. The boys spent time in Guthrie’s hometown Okemah, Oklahoma, a town Guthrie left to hit the road and try to find the ‘American Dream’. The town — now impoverished, rural, depressed and mostly closed — provided the band with a true sense of what Woody experienced and what his words really meant. While this album disappointed some because it was not the typical rousing Celtic punk music we have all come to expect from Dropkick Murphys, the album is nonetheless brilliant and masterful in its stylings. The album uses Guthrie’s words and prose while paying him homage and respect. It is an effort in doing what so many have done in the past with folk music in that it takes what came before, pays tribute, is interpreted, but it is made your own. Yes, this is a great Dropkick Murphys album. Yes, this is an American country folk album. Yes, it is a true protest album. And, yes, it is punk as fuck!
Purchase or stream ‘This Machine Still Kills Fascists’ album:
- “Two 6’s Upside Down”
- “Talking Jukebox”
- “Ten Times More”
- “Never Git Drunk No More”, feat. Nikki Lane
- “All You Fonies”
- “The Last One”, feat. Evan Felker
- “Cadillac, Cadillac”
- “Waters Are A’Risin”
- “Where Trouble Is At”
- “Dig a Hole”, feat. Woody Guthrie
Dropkick Murphys — “The Last One”
Disclaimer: All views presented in this album review are those of the reviewer and not necessarily those of Top Shelf Music.