For my money, “Last Letter Home” will always be the finest song the Dropkick Murphys ever put out. Although this album, The Warrior’s Code, spawned the ubiquitous “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” which now gets played at baseball games, and the saccharine “Sunshine Highway,” which shouldn’t, it’s an album that deals quite a lot with death.
And I don’t mean this in the typical skulls and Mohawks, Sid Vicious school. If anything, the Murphys’ treatment of the subject owes more to their traditional Irish influences—these songs are mournful and heartbreaking, none more so than “Last Letter Home.”
Rather than a spoken narrative, the entire lyric consists of excerpts from letters sent and received by a soldier fighting in Iraq. It’s a clever technique that works because of its reductive nature. We know nothing about the characters, apart from their relationships to one another, allowing us to map our own emotions and features on to them. The soldier receives letters from his wife and from his worried parents. He writes about his kids, tries to calm his mother down, and revels in the sound of another Murphys tune, the traditional “Fields of Athenry” (off of Blackout). These excerpts sketch out a family, a living, symbiotic organism. Like yours, like mine.
Then the bridge hits. It introduces a new voice, both literally and narratively, and it is an unwelcome one—the voice every parent, wife, or husband fears. “We regret to inform you that on January 28th Sgt. Andrew Farrar died while serving his country in the Al-Anbar province of Iraq/Words cannot convey our sorrow.”
And the listener understands that a hole has been blown right through this family organism. It’s a sudden jerk, a needle-off-the-record moment.
Though musically it might have made more traditional sense as a ballad, the rage associated with the sheer incomprehensibility of an event like this can only manifest in a primal scream. Nowhere is this clearer than after the bagpipe line resolves at 2:43 and fades out. Three seconds of silence, and then a furious, violent onslaught of guitar noise, the sound of fists hitting a concrete wall with rage, grief, and pain. Part of punk rock’s appeal has always been that it is a way to cope with all the things you can’t change, and the Murphys channel that here to devastating and poignant effect.
Did I mention it’s a true story?