Publication: The Independent 
Date Published: Monday, October 29, 1990 
By: Nicholas Lezard
Section: Arts Page, Pg. 13

IF ANYONE exploits rock 'n' roll's traditional self-destructive impulse, it is the Pogues' lead-singer, Shane MacGowan. The side-effects of his legendary, epic binges are now part of the act. At Wembley Arena on Friday, he did not appear on stage for the first two songs. When he did you might have wondered whether he was really there at all, leaving the stage every couple of songs for other band members to take up the vocals. It is one thing to sing sentimental songs about booze: it's another to look and sound convincingly like you're dying of it on stage; still, an incomprehensible MacGowan is better than most other people coherent - it's a matter of stage presence. Apart from the drinking, the other important thing about him is that he is one of the best Irish / British songwriters of the last decade. The question is, will he make it through the next one? 

Ireland being as much a diaspora as a country, voyages have always inspired MacGowan, from the early album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, to the emigrant fantasies of ''Thousands are Sailing'' and ''A Fairytale of New York''. The Pogues' latest album, Hell's Ditch, evokes a nautical inferno: a place you end up in against your will rather than because of it. As a metaphor for what is happening to the Pogues - MacGowan looking ill and publicly fed up with touring - it is disturbingly appropriate.

As a showcase for the new album, the show worked, thanks mostly to the quality of the material, and the audience were not so much dancing in the aisles as performing full-blown jigs in them. It was interesting to see how MacGowan's new-found obsession with Thailand went down with the resolutely Irish audience. ''Summer in Siam'', a lyrically brief but poignant song in slow waltz time, had people waving their arms back and forth above their heads as happily as if he were singing about autumn in Dublin.

The point about Irish folk music is that it should reduce you to tears by closing time. MacGowan's songs combine bleak catalogues of loss, drunkenness and injustice with a jaunty relish of the predicament. ''Rain Street'', ''Sunnyside of the Street'' and ''The Ghost of a Smile'', from the new album, are in this respect as good as anything they have done before. Tears, though, are also provoked by farewells, and Hell's Ditch is steeped in valediction. ''Here's another last song,'' they said after the second encore: ''We specialise in last songs''.

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