What makes ‘Come On, Eileen’ great?
In the first place, plenty of people don’t think it is great, and even people who think it’s great can agree that it’s painfully overplayed. Whether you like it or not, it would probably sound better if you hadn’t heard it seventy krillion times.
It’s overplayed for a reason, though: there’s a lot to admire about it, mostly in the arrangement — The lyrics are all right. The repeated ‘thoughts verge on dirty’ (then ‘Well, they’re dirty’) motif provides an ingenious turn on outright explicit candour, or cloying romance, the first time you hear it; but it doesn’t wear well. Kevin Rowland’s singing as a grown-up, and we get what he’s referring to. It might do well as a device lightly deployed, but instead the Dexys hammer it home. The trope of ‘we’re different from those people’ does its usual work, though the song is unassuming enough* that it doesn’t seem too condescending, and ‘beat down eyes sunk in smoke dried faces’ is a fresh way of making this characterisation.
He’s sweet-talking Eileen, but he invites without threatening (in the song; the video shows Rowland and another member of the band grabbing and holding Eileen against her will, though it concludes with Eileen joining Rowland and walking into the distance arm in arm with him). Partial credit.
But the art lies in the arrangement, in several ways. First, the arrangement underscores the lyric’s hopefulness with brightness, but without drama (contrast ‘Born to Run’ — another ‘we’re not like them’ song). Predominantly up-tempo, with prominent hooks in the upper-register fiddle, banjo, and tinwhistle (and a high-end piano part), the arrangement is both full and at the same time airy and light. Langer and Winstanley did their job well.
More important, I’d argue, is the episodic structure of the song. If you count the outro, the song shifts among five distinct portions: verse – slightly slower chorus – verse – chorus — slow, but accelerating bridge – chorus, slightly faster – fade to outro. The very distinct sound of each portion flows utterly convincingly into the next. I’m a sucker for episodic structure in popular song, and ‘Come On, Eileen’ hits that squarely
I can hear out people who don’t like it, but even when I try to be too sophisticated to like it, many subtle touches in ‘Come On, Eileen’ win me over. At the second modulation from verse to chorus, Rowland sings ‘We’ll hum this tune forever’ — I probably will.
* Does anyone think that the role Rowland’s playing really believes that his/their youth and cleverness ensures that they will escape resigned fatalism? The music expresses hopefulness and confidence, but the lyric sounds to me as though they’re self-aware that they’re enmeshed in the same circumstances that beat down their older neighbours. Maybe that’s me as an old, arguably beat-down, guy.