Nick Cave is obsessed by it. Shane MacGowan appears immune to it. Johnny Cash’s fascination with death and mortality came to define his legend and followed him, fittingly, all the way to the grave. Death, too, is a lingering theme through 100 Midnights, the second full-length record from Dubliner the Mighty Stef (nÃ© Stefan Murphy).
Keeping with a macabre theme, 100 Midnights follows the release last May of the Death Threats EP, a mostly acoustic effort. That EP marked the last ever recorded performance of Ronnie Drew, on a cover of Pete St. John’s lesser-known classic -The Mero,’ before he too succumbed to the allure of the grave. The Irish folk tradition is not as pronounced here as on the EP, with the full-band arrangements tending to take it closer to his Cash and proto-punk influences than anything, but Stef’s meaty Dublin brogue is unmistakable. Like an Irish Iggy Pop, he is: loud, brash but ultimately far more subtle than you’ll ever realise.
Opening track -Downtown’ is an obvious choice for a lead single, an energetic rocker in the Springsteen mould, but it’s merely a springboard for the rest of the album. -Safe At Home’ is a duet with former Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan and wears the influence of that band proudly, shifting seamlessly between a sparse, mournful verse (sung by O’Riordan) and Stef’s thunderous, organ-assisted garage rock chorus. The title track and -I Swear I Have No Feelings For That Girl,’ sea shanties both, see Stef adopt a smoky tone that’s eerily reminiscent of the late Drew, while -Golden Gloves’ is the most unlikely love song imaginable, as Stef howls out blue lines on top of fuzzy 12-bar riffs and boogie woogie piano: ‘come rain down fire on me baby / hit me with your golden gloves.’
-Sunshine Serenade’ is a deceptive title for a cautionary tale about drug-taking and child mortality, and the upbeat, Memphis-country arrangement is just as misleading, but it turns out to be the most moving track on the album, hinging on the chorus line: ‘you will not leave this hospital until you give me your word: don’t let it steal the sunshine from your eyes.’ -Russian Roulette’ is a dreamy tribute to Johnny Ace, the original rock n’ roll suicide case, but the duet with Shane MacGowan, a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s -Waiting Round To Die,’ is just downright discomforting considering the parallels between the lives of MacGowan and its authors. Well, nobody said it would be easy to digest.