Thin Lizzy’s 1973 album Vagabonds of the Western World marks their third LP release, their final album with guitarist Eric Bell, and a continued evolution of their sound. Sure, you have Phil’s inimitable vocal stylings and lyrical prose aplenty, and Bell — as underrated a classic rock guitarist as they come — continues to show off what he does best. But if their self-titled debut was a folkier affair, and the followup Shades From a Blue Orphanage seemed more soulful and a tad scatterbrained, Vagabonds of the Western World kicked the barn door open with a heavy blues/rock sound, while still retaining some of Lizzy’s patented folk, storytelling, balladry, even some prog tendencies. The result is an album which, if not a stone classic, ranks as one of the band’s more impressive works.
Bell’s tasty slide-work kicks the door during the bluesy “Mama Nature Said”. The track is a respectable blues-rock number; Lynott sings it well, and his basslines effectively counterpoint Bell’s fretwork, but the song is nothing special. More memorable is the slow blues of “Slow Blues”. Anchored by Lynott’s walking bass and embellished by Bell’s restrained but effective licks, the song works well enough, but it’s Downey’s drumming that stands out the most. The opening and closing passages of the song are not as interesting as its rolling midsection, but this can almost be forgiven as Lynott’s soulful wails goes a long way to making these parts more compelling.
It’s tempting to quantify “The Hero and the Madman” somewhere on the overblown self-indulgence spectrum. Lynott is in full storytelling mode, replete with faux-American Western affectation and utilizing crowd and voice sound effects to underscore his tale… about some such nonsense that doesn’t really mean much of anything. Bell’s solo that closes the song is bright and effective, and the song remains somehow fascinating regardless; like some kind of early 70s funk-rock-opera-narrative hybrid that still remains more entertaining than 99% of Godspell. Talk about your basic damning with faint praise, but there you have it. Faint praise doesn’t even enter the picture with superlative sort-of title track “Vagabond of the Western World”, which plays to Lynott’s strengths as both a singer and storyteller. Lynott’s folk tale of a gypsy-like wanderer and heartbreaker is an entirely winning tune: strong, soulful, and intense. The “tura-lura-lay” refrains between verses lend the tune some pseudo-Gaelic street-cred to this entirely Gael-free reviewer. The song gets maybe a bit repetitious at times but never ever close to tedious. In fact, it seems like a less intense but equally engaging precursor to their later-era rocker “Bad Reputation”.
The album’s big single “The Rocker”, a raucous ode to the joys of theatrical musical posturing. It’s a wailing barnstormer of a tune, in which Bell goes completely unleashed and shreds gleefully as Lynott snarls and mesmerizes and does what he does best, even with lyrics as cliched as these (“I’m a rocker! I’m a roller too, baby…) There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but the song delivers the goods and then some, featuring a simple but memorable central riff that anchors the song in hard rock standards but also manages to transcend predictability. The odd balladry of “Little Girl In Bloom” makes it the album’s quirkiest yet charming track. Coming directly after “Vagabond” makes it a spiritual ‘sequel’ to that song, an ode to a knocked-up young girl, presumably by the Vagabond himself. It’s an odd song, but a beautiful one. If the lyrics are a bit too obvious at times, the chimey rhythm that drives the melody like mournful church bells give this simple reflection ample weight. A quirky track, no doubt, but definitely a standout.
The album ends a little weaker than it probably should. “Gonna Creep Up On You” delivers a sleek, sinister musical scowl, but the lyrics are uninspired and the song ends up as little more than album filler. There’s nothing terribly wrong with it, but it’s an uninspired track. The rollicking 3/4-beat of “A Song for While I’m Away” closes the album, a rather heavily orchestrated Roy Orbison-styled ballad. It’s sort of a mess, really. You end up wanting to like it more than you actually do; all the double-reed woodwinds and strings in the world can’t help what ends up being a rather tedious song.
The bonus tracks included on the 1991 release include “Whiskey in the Jar”, a traditional Irish arrangement that became a smash UK and Irish hit for the band (one they kinda sorta hated). Metallica popularized it in North America with their 1999 cover, but I prefer the softer, folkier Lizzy take. It was released as a single, along with “Black Boys On The Corner” as a B-side. The latter is a strong rocker, with an infectious hook and a fine vocal performance from Lynott. The Latin-tinged “Randolph’s Tango”, another single released around the same time, has a winning vibe that is easily disarming. Bell’s flamenco-styled solo is the highlight of this track. Its B-side, “Broken Dreams”, is a forgettable blues-rock number that feels more like warmed-over AC/DC than anything else.
Overall, this is a strong if flawed album from Thin Lizzy. There are several standout tracks, with only one real clunker and a bit of filler. What it lacks in consistency, it makes up for in style and intensity. Like most of Lizzy’s catalog, Vagabonds of the Western World is yet another LP that remains overlooked by most audiences, but it’s worth seeking out by both longtime fans as well as rock enthusiasts who barely know the band past the Jailbreak album.