Barry McCormack’s songs are gritty short films that deeply and sensitively evoke the dark, damp streets of modern Dublin. It feels like it’s been raining for months in the world of Cut Throat Lane, McCormack’s latest album, his fifth. Everyone is walking the wet streets, friendless, broke and shivering cold. Even the pub offers no refuge. “They’re dancing rings,” McCormack sings. “Across the sticky floors of your heart.”
Cut Throat Lane is the old name for a street in Dublin next to the old Murdering Lane. The streets are renamed in the new Ireland of skyscrapers and boutique hotels, of fortunes won and lost, but the country is bankrupt and the old dark ways rise up through McCormack’s verses, calling amid the wreckage to reclaim the Irish soul.
Unlike McCormack’s earlier work which was more grounded in the Irish guitar balladeer tradition (think Shane MacGowan filtered through Bob Dylan) Cut Throat Lane has more baroque, piano-based textures and more transparent arrangements. McCormack uses bass and guitar to play flowing counter-melodies which propel the songs forward and give them buoyancy.
Years ago in the pubs of Ireland it seemed like everyone knew at least one song they could stand up and sing for the crowd. After hearing the first chorus, everyone joined in for the second. No one may feel like standing and singing in McCormack’s Ireland. It’s a place of junkies and muggers, hipsters and soup kitchens, filthy streets and failing businesses. The pub has been torn down, replaced by an empty parking garage.
“Even the ship rats in the sewers have grown cautious and leery” McCormack growls on the album’s opener and title track, a swaggering sea shanty complete with male chorus and the rocking 6/8 rhythm of a boat tossed by the waves.
Even home offers no solace for the people of McCormack’s songs. The apartments have leaky ceilings and the floors are littered with bottles, syringes and cigarette butts. The Irish Sea is rough and the seawalls are crumbling. The whole country may be preparing to slide into the water. All the roads end in ditches.
This record is no mere litany of complaints, though. Far from it. There is a beautiful and compassionate urgency to McCormack’s work. Everyone may be lonely in these songs, but no one is alone.
“I seem to be down to my last pair of socks,” McCormack sings near the end of the record. Mulrooney was on the couch in his dressing gown and his jocks.” Like James Joyce’s Dubliners McCormack’s new album is a story of Dublin told from many voices. Like ghosts a-haunting, these lost souls may only have strength enough to rattle their chains and do no more. McCormack sings of the worst people doing the worst things in the worst places, but he sings with them and for them, without judgement or distance. McCormack may not be able to save anyone he sings about, but perhaps these dark Irish lives don’t ask for saving? The Irish have always known there is solace in the mere act of singing, of turning dark doings into beautiful art.
McCormack has been busily writing the folk songs of the new Ireland for many years now. Listen to a verse and chorus then sing along with him as it comes around again. Everything is different now, his songs seem to say, but nothing has changed.
Raise your glass and join McCormack in singing his beautiful, grime-spattered songs.