The songs are sketchy, the mix is a mess and Shane MacGowan mumbles/stumbles through every song so you can barely understand a word. To some Pogues fans these are good things. With erstwhile Clash-man and occasional Pogue Joe Strummer behind the board after two "sophisticated" albums produced by Steve Lillywhite, "Hell's Ditch" reemphasizes the rough-hewn pub ambience that made the Pogues' marriage of the Clash and the Clancy Brothers so bracing and endearing in the first place. But, as such, it's a retreat and a disappointment.
With Lillywhite, the Pogues had focused and matured as songwriters, while expanding the musical base far from the rowdy pub-song foundation. That development seems arrested here, with the sloppiness sounding as if it comes from sloth rather than from tensions and emotions.
Not all is lost: It takes some extrapolating, but MacGowan's off-handedly accomplished writing skills seem intact. And tunes and lyrics evoke points Mediterranean and Oriental to great effect. Sure, a Pogues album should sound like a party, but not one where the cake was eaten hours ago and all that's left is a half-full bottle of whiskey.