I wanted to wait to write about the Mighty Mighty Bosstones newest album, “When God Was Great,” until I got to hear it on vinyl. I imagine that’s pretty nerdy, but I’ve been buying Bosstones albums since listening to them on physical media was the only option, and when you’re in a lifelong relationship, tradition can be important. Unfortunately, my pre-order of the album got misdelivered or lost in the mail. I’m not really sure which. I only know for certain where it isn’t. I went down to my local shop to pick up a copy once it became apparent I wasn’t getting my order. They didn’t have it, which is unfortunate because it’s the same shop I stopped going to for years because they didn’t carry “Live From The Middle East.” So, for now, it’s just digital.
A new Bosstones album is a big deal for me. I wrote a long piece not long ago about how they’ve been my favorite band for most of my life, so I’m not going to get into the history. It’s enough to say that I’ve been waiting excitedly since they first announced they were recording back in the heart of the pandemic.
There are a number of albums artists I love have been working on during all the lockdown downtime, and the Bosstones are the first one out of the gate. I have been wondering what lockdown albums would end up being like. There are plenty of stories about albums being written by flashlight in the back of vans while on tour or in the studio between tours, but not many about albums written while we were all stuck in our houses bouncing a ball on the wall like the Cooler King.
The answer, at least from the Bosstones, is an album that’s not like anything else in their catalog. The three singles released prior, “I Don’t Believe in Anything,” “The Killing of George (Part 3), and the all-star Ska revue “The Final Parade,” were all very topical in the lyrics and seemed more traditionally Ska than the Bosstones have done in the past. It turns out that the album is very much about the last year. The topicality of the singles is present in essentially all the album tracks as well.
Normally, when I sit down to write about music, I write about how I relate to the music or a bit about what’s going on in my life. I’m hardly a music critic, and I think it’s essentially impossible to have a completely neutral view of songs and albums or that a neutral opinion is even worth listening to. That approach feels a bit odd because, in the case of this album, the circumstances it was written in and the place we’re all in when we’re listening to it are largely the same. We all are going through this monstrously traumatic pandemic, and all experienced the unrest and horror of the last however many months. The band went through the same thing we all did in roughly the same way, and as such, all the songs feel both extremely personal and agonizingly universal. The fifth track of the album, “Bruised,” kind of says it all when Dicky Barrett sings, “We might be bruised, but we’re not broken, we might be down, but we’re not out.”
“Bruised” really shows the Bosstones approach throughout the whole album. It’s about having been through all this and dealing with it by fighting back with hope and love. This has been the Bosstones message for all the years I’ve listened, and I almost got choked up the first time listening to this, their 11th studio album, and hearing that my old friends hadn’t given up or given over to despair or cynicism. I’m not sure I can say the same about myself, but hearing this album certainly gave me a bit of a ray of light.
After listening to the album for a week, I still think it’s unique among Bosstones albums musically. There’s a lot here that just doesn’t exist in the rest of the catalog. Little flourishes like the seagulls in “Lonely Boy” or the handclaps in “What It Takes” caught me off guard because they’re not the kind of thing that shows up in their catalog. There is a distinctly 70’s feel to everything, which makes me mentally think of it as “Dicky’s album.” I don’t have any real reason to think of it that way, but I have an internal habit of thinking of the more Ska side of things as “Dicky’s side” and the punk side as “Joe Gittleman’s side.” I don’t really know when I started doing this, although I think it has a lot to do with Joe’s side project “Avoid One Thing” and talking to Dicky about “Handbags and Gladrags” by Mike d’Abo, which the Bosstones played at the last Throwdown. The presence of a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Long as I Can See the Light” adds to that vibe.
The other big thing is this feels like a “California” album. I know Dicky and some of the band live in California, Ted Hutt and Tim Armstrong, who produced it, are both California-based, so I’m sure a lot of the work was done out west. Much like the “Dicky’s” album thing, I don’t really have anything to back this up; it’s more a feeling than anything else. When I listen to it, despite the nostalgia of the record, I don’t hear a whole lot of Boston in it. This may just be because it’s so Ska heavy rather than overtly Ska-Core. There’s just more sunshine and LA traffic here than cold Boston winter. Truthfully, it feels more like a 2Tone or original Ska record than a punk record at all. The last couple of albums have been trending that way, but on this one, it feels like a complete shift. If I had to sum it all up, I’d say it feels a bit like what would happen if Dave Wakeling remade “Pay Attention.”
With all that said, it’s a wonderful album. It feels vital and exciting in a way that I don’t think a lot of 11th studio albums tend to feel. It’s big and bold and filled with all those things that made the Bosstones the soundtrack for my life all these years. I’ve probably listened to it straight through thirty times this week, and it’s going to take a pretty big effort to get me to put on anything else for a while. The Bosstones know what and who they are, and although this album is unique among their albums, it is wholly and thoroughly a Bosstones record. I absolutely cannot wait to hear these songs live for the first time. The album art, by Yo Yo Yosef, is terrific too.
The album opens with one of the faster songs, “Decide.” Dicky tears through the verses at a breakneck pace before launching into the big sing-along chorus. I’m a sucker for album openers that set the pace and get you right into the swing of things, and “Decide” gets that job done. It’s the shortest song on the album, coming in at a crisp and efficient 2:43. The titular decision, I think, is about whether to give up or keep going. Since it’s the first song on the album, I think it’s pretty easy to tell which way they went.
The second song, “M O V E,” is the first of songs directly about the Lockdown. “We are all in this together, I’ve never felt so alone” is the first line, which is an excellent summation of how many of us, myself included, felt over the last year. The song goes on to reference flattening the curve and then sings about leaving the city. I’m not 100% certain what fleeing the city is all about in this, although it feels like it’s all a critique of people who refused to do their part and help out during the pandemic. What I DO know is that the chorus reminds me so much of the chorus of “Monkey Man” by the late great Toots Hibbert that I immediately fell in love with it. It’s just a wonderfully fun Ska song. I’m listening to it as I write this, and it’s impossible not to bounce your head along with it.
Next up is the second of the singles released before the album, “I Don’t Believe in Anything.” It’s another of the songs that seem directly about the pandemic, or more specifically, people who called it a hoax. Of all the songs on the album, it’s the one that would be at home on other Bosstones albums. I have a list of songs I think of as “quintessential Bosstones Songs” with songs like “The Impression That I Get,” “Someday I Suppose,” and “Where Did You Go?” The class of Bosstones song that you would put on any mix if you wanted people to understand who the Bosstones are. This is the song I’d put on it for this album. It’s got that thing that just screams, “This is who we are!”
“Certain Things” is the fourth track, and if I had to guess, the one most longtime fans are gonna like the least on the album. In the entire Bosstones catalog, it’s perhaps the LEAST Bosstones sounding song. I mentioned that this album has a lot of stuff that isn’t on other albums AND has a Western vibe; well, this one has steel guitars which, well, they aren’t something you hear on many Ska albums. I’m not sure I’d describe it as “country sounding,” as I’ve seen in a few places, but it’s definitely dipping its toe into Americana. The song as a whole is very confessional and emotional, so the steel guitar doesn’t sound out of place, but it’s definitely a new kind of thing to find on a Bosstones record. As someone who listens to a lot of bands like Son Volt and the Jayhawks, I have to say that it feels like two great tastes that taste great together, but I understand why it might not be to everyone’s taste.
I mentioned “Bruised” earlier. It’s, in many ways, the album’s mission statement. A rollicking Ska tune filled with harmonies and dancing horns. It’s another where it’s impossible not to bob your head along with the music when you listen to it. I’d put money on the Bosstones opening a show or two with it. Dicky occasionally drifts into a kind of singing that feels a bit like his old growling style mixed with self-aware humor, and that’s how he sings this. I love it when he sings like this and can very easily picture him on stage when he does. I can’t wait to hear all these songs live, as I said, but maybe this one more than any other.
“Lonely Boy,” like “Certain Things,” feels unique. It is absolutely a 2 Tone influenced Ska bop that mixes in barbershop harmonies, seagulls, classic horns, some cool production. It feels somewhere between a fun beach weekend and the first thirty pages of Stephen King’s Talisman. My brother, and huge Bosstones fan, lives in Kingston, MA, and was excited to have a song about his town. Another Bosstones fan friend, Matt, wondered if Dicky was actually singing about Kingston Jamaica, and I think it’s probably somewhere in the middle. He’s singing about what he actually did as a kid, but also about spinning old Ska records and feeling comforted by them. That’s just a guess, but it feels right to me. It may be my favorite track on the album.
The next song is “The Killing of Georgie (Part 3).” This was the third of the singles and is another upbeat rocker. It’s about a lot of things, but specifically, it’s about George Floyd and America and what we all went through last summer. I wish I’d written this earlier so I didn’t even feel like I had to mention the Esquire piece and the resulting hoopla. Essentially a writer who hasn’t listened to the Bosstones since a month after “The Impression That I Get” and some Twitter users who only know the band from that song and a joke on Bojack Horseman decided that the Bosstones didn’t tackle the subject in an appropriate way. This is, of course, dumb as hell. The Bosstones approached it the way they do, with music, light, love, hope, and passion. The song is terrific, quoting Martin Luther King and asking questions that we need to answer someday. The way we don’t answer them is with a poor grasp of the political history of Ska and the Bosstones themselves. The article, which I’m not gonna link to, includes the line “Now, listen, am I here to bash the Bosstones?” which is, of course, entirely false. The whole piece is about making cheap jokes about Ska, the band, and being mad that a band the author, by virtue of being invested in cultural gatekeeping and homogeny, is embarrassed at having enjoyed a song from, is still making music that isn’t specifically for him. Other gatekeepers piled on, and it’s a real shame because it’s an excellent song, and now when I hear it, I just get mad all over again.
“You Had To Be There” is the 8th track. It’s a song about the band’s history and one of two overtly nostalgic songs. “If we weren’t who we were, then who would we become?” the song asks, and it’s a good question. It’s one I ask about myself and the Bosstones. If it wasn’t for their music, who would I be today? It’s a fun and fast tune that makes me look back and smile at a lot of shenanigans. Nostalgia can be cheap and trite in songs, and it doesn’t come off like that here. It’s more about celebrating than looking back longingly, and that’s the way to do it.
The second nostalgia-based song comes next in the titular “When God Was Great.” It’s a song about growing up and understanding how much has changed since then. It’s a big dramatic song that feels like it follows in the footsteps of “Pin Points and Gin Joints,” which is filled with songs about growing up. I think it’s a song that will get played after band introductions at the next Throwdown. In fact, I can almost hear the first few notes of “Impression” ringing out as the song ends on the album.
“What It Takes” is the one song on the album I can’t figure out at all. It feels very 80’s to me. In fact, when I listen to it, I picture the band dancing around like it’s a big song and dance number in a sitcom. There are handclaps everywhere and a real pop sensibility to it. I enjoy it, and it doesn’t feel out of place on the album, but to me, it doesn’t sound much like what I would call “A Bosstones song.” It doesn’t even really sound like Ska to me. I love the piano intro, and I’ll reserve judgment till I see them play it, although I’m not convinced they will.
Next up is the aforementioned cover of CCR’s “Long as I Can See The Light.” I was excited for this when the tracklist came out before the album since this is one of my favorite Creedence songs, and I was not disappointed. I love the echoey vocals and that they didn’t really speed the song up. The harmonies on the chorus hit just right, and the Ska makeover sounds just right. I’m at least 70% sure I’m going to start crying if they play it at the first show I get to post-pandemic. Hell, I got choked up listening to it the first spin-through. The “yeah, oh yeah” at 1:56 is my single favorite moment on the entire album. It’s perfect. When I hear a cover, I want to hear the band putting their spin on it and making it their own, and I think the Bosstones accomplish that.
“The Truth Hurts” starts out with a single guitar lick and some handclaps and then bounces into what feels like the traditional Bosstones song about some dude they know. This fits in the grand tradition of songs like “The Day He Didn’t Die,” “Candlepin Paul,” and “The Bricklayers Story.” It’s a quality song that has a really cool chorus. I’m not sure why Dicky sings a lot of it in a nasally voice, but it works. I still can’t get over all the handclaps on the album.
“It Went Well” is somehow more Ska than all the other Ska songs on the album. The vocals combine the echoey sound from “Long As I Can See the Light” with the nasally singing from “The Truth Hurts,” making it the first Bosstones song I wasn’t 100% sure who was singing, right up until Dicky says “zoom,” which is somehow unmistakably Dicky. The song has an almost Caribbean sound to it, and I would not have been shocked if Tim Armstrong had thrown some steel drums in there. The subject is very much about the Lockdown, and the sentiments expressed are pretty damn relatable. It’s not my favorite song on the album, but every time someone says “zoom” around me now, I hear it in Dicky’s voice, and that is worth the price of admission.
The guitar upstrokes that open “I Don’t Want To Be You” are great. It’s just a classic sound to open a song. The song builds in intensity for a while before blowing up into a full-blown Bosstones song. I love it when they do that. It’s not quite “Another Drinking Song,” but it’s got some of the same vibe. More so than a lot of the other songs on the album, this one uses a lot of the Bosstones old tricks, and it feels very familiar and also new. The end explodes into a long screed about what they want and don’t want that is really cool. I’m not sure who it is they don’t want to be, but I know I also don’t want to be them.
The album finale is the huge “The Final Parade.” It’s a song about music, Ska, and not giving up or quitting. This was the first song released way back in January. While it is definitely a Bosstones song, it’s so much more. It is, as I said above, an All-Star Ska revue. EVERYONE is on this track, including Aimee Interrupter, Angelo Moore, Tim Armstrong, Stranger Cole, Dave and Brie McWane, Karina Denike, Roddy Radiation, and SO MANY MORE. It’s a joyful love letter to this musical genre that so many of us love. It’s 7:57 of pure Ska bliss.
The word “Final” in the title scared the shit out of me when I first heard it, but I think I understand it better now. It’s the Bosstones way of saying that the music goes on and that this is who they are. The album as a whole is an ode to perseverance, love, hope, and of getting up each morning in tough times and a rough world, and finding a little bit of love and music in your heart and using that to help keep going.
I was looking forward to this album, but I didn’t really understand how much I needed it until I sat down with my headphones and turned it up for that first time. It’s been bad, and times aren’t getting any easier, but when I hear these songs, I know that we are, in fact, in this together, and there are folks out there who understand, and together maybe someday we’ll all see the light. The Bosstones open the album asking if we should cash in or let it ride, and here we are, fifteen songs later, resolved to let it ride.