Why do I like the Pogues? Rum, Sodomy and the Lash is a great pop album, otherwise I wouldn't be writing about it; but it adorns itself in the most degraded ornaments of historical defeats, as if to say that in this defeat we can still have a good time. That's a notion as ubiquitous as I am suspicious of it. I mean, I don't want to admit historical defeat, who does? I'm on the cusp of quoting Joyce or maybe Yeats, so perhaps I should stop. Even so, everything on this album happens decidedly after a moment of excitement and possibility. It's Belacqua, from Dante's Purgatorio: sitting at the foot of the mountain too lazy to ascend, saying as much to our esteemed poet and his even more esteemed tour guide through the cosmos.
At this point even the initial question seems implausible. Do I like the Pogues? Keston Sutherland says that favorites are complicated objects, and that things become our favorites for a host of reasons that aren't necessarily the best possible ones. I take him seriously, find his insight generative, and would like to think that Rum, Sodomy and the Lash is an object lesson in how disgust and delight intermingle, at least for me. I can't avoid the album's machismo, or its celebration of a series of political defeats as just another day where we end up at the bar; but I can't ignore how from all this the Pogues manage to give pleasure, a pleasure significant enough that I have undertaken to write about it.
Pleasure can't redeem anything, of course; the Pogues still must face up to the long nightmare of history, which they try to wake up from again and again by borrowing the folk conventions of the murder ballad and the drinking song to find a form for feeling inert and useless. But I think pleasure has a Utopian edge to it. In part because, as I just said, the feeling here is one of purposelessness. How hard it is to comprehend having no purpose these days, when everything must either account for its utility or perish! How wonderful the dream of some sort of collective social being, even if only provisionally and only in mutual acknowledgment of suffering! Again, these don't change what I don't like about the Pogues, but they make me want to listen to Rum, Sodomy and the Lash repeatedly, where glimpses of the opposite of everyday life make themselves felt even if only in their falling away from possible realization. Thus "Wild Cats of Kilkenny," with its opening vocalization of a cat's shriek, might also be the sound of saying no! to legibility and, indeed, to purpose itself. What if we were like wild cats, what if we could live pleasurably, or even freely?
At the same time, opposition holds sway: this song, and all the others, are pop songs, they reiterate a pattern of conventions that we recognize and that return us to a state of objective unfreedom. It's like that Wallace Stevens poem, "Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz," in which music no longer functions as it once did, as a "mode of desire, a mode / Of revealing desire," and instead comes to figure absence and a chance for future fulfillment. The uncapturable aesthetic experience brings us back to the very capturable, and captured, social world we inhabit. Stevens wants a music—which for him means also poetry—of the future. I think the Pogues wanted a pop music of the future; in "Dirty Old Town," the speaker kisses his lover "by a factory wall." The town's dirt implicitly relates to the factory, which in turn brings to bear a host of associations about labor and the time of labor, as well as the demands made by the fact of labor on everyone. Does repetition in a pop song say something about labor and what it does to the landscape?
Even if it does, in the throes of mass culture such an insight doesn't mean much for us. It's part of being in the thrall of the culture industry. No matter how rhapsodic I might be in describing something, that fact remains the same. But Rum, Sodomy and the Lash is a childish album in ways that supersede the sometimes hackneyed attempts to read rebellion into the flailing and hissing of punk. It does what children do when they want to figure something out: it imitates, it causes trouble and steals wantonly from everything around it. The result is degraded but compellingly so. If it still sounds like I hate that of which I speak, I would only point out that Samuel Beckett's favorite character in Dante's Divine Comedy was, in fact, Belacqua. And if we take Beckett as giving us the most realistic description of life in the 20th century, then maybe degradation seen as a fact rather than a moral impugnation can organize how we approach such difficult but, to my mind, rewarding albums as Rum, Sodomy and the Lash. Maybe saying so is pointless. Maybe that ends up being the point.
—David W. Pritchard