Album Review: The Waterboys – Modern Blues

Mike Scott and company release their freshest album since Fisherman’s Blues with a focus on sharply-observed lyrics and accessible tunes

Mike Scott and The Waterboys are one of music’s most enigmatic and interesting acts. In their three decade career going back to their 1983 eponymous debut, Waterboys (and Scott solo) albums are always marked by intricate, poignantly poetic lyrics combined with outstanding musicianship.

On their first three albums (The Waterboys, 1984’s A Pagan Place and 1985’s This Is The Sea) the Waterboys were often grouped together in with U2, Big Country, The Alarm and Simple Minds in what was called the Big Music movement (after a song on A Pagan Place). More a convenience for journalists than a conscious music collective, the description fit though and stuck through the 1980s; these five bands were writing songs based on Big Ideas of spirituality, politics and the politics of love in a complex, soaring, anthemic way that was in another universe than the vapid pop of the day. The music was uplifting, the singing was passionate, the lyrics were mind-expanding and no band exemplified this spirit better than the Waterboys, culminating for me with one of the 10 best songs of the 1980s, This Is The Sea’s “The Whole Of The Moon”.

After this opening trilogy of albums, Waterboys founding member Karl Wallinger (late of World Party) and others departed the band, and Scott and the Waterboys relocated to Ireland and took a hard right turn into a more rustic Celtic style for the stone-cold classic 1988 album Fisherman’s Blues and its raggle-taggle followup, 1990’s Room To Roam. This was an extremely fertile time for the now-sprawling combo as shown by the magnificent six-disc version (!) of Fisherman’s Blues released in 2013 that showed the depth of the work that they were doing in that period. This version of the band is one of my favorite groups of all time.

In 1991 Scott broke up this version of the Waterboys (as he is want to do from time to time), moved to New York and essentially restarted the band from scratch, with a more conventional rock electric sound that continues on to this day with a focus on exquisite word play and a harder-edged sound starting with 1993’s Dream Harder.

In the 22 years since Dream Harder, Scott has released two major solo albums and by my count eight studio Waterboys albums that have all been consistently high quality additions to the catalogue and solidify Scott’s place as one of the great writers of the rock era bringing to mind comparisons to Dylan and Morrison (Van, not Jim).

I admit that from time to time as Scott has delved deeper and deeper into literary allusions and mystic references, he sometimes has gone so deep as to risk losing even some of his devoted fans like me. For every accessible album like 1997’s solo Still Burnin’ or 2007’s Book Of Lightning, there are more impenetrable albums like 2003’s Universal Hall or 2011’s An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, (based on the poetry of William Butler Yeats) that are carefully crafted but so personal to Scott that I personally find them to be difficult listening. At his most obscure, the literary allusions, location references and mystic quotes that I understand only highlight how much of his writing that I don’t understand. I’m convinced that Scott is a lyrical genius even if I don’t understand the half of what he’s on to.

Live, Scott and the Waterboys are one of the most interesting bands going. I’ve seen them probably a dozen times over the years and no two shows have been the same. More than most musicians, Scott channels his muse in his live shows and it can be a remarkable experience to witness. I’ve seen Scott rapturous, expansive, mercurial and funny on stage, and I’ve also seen him angry and churlish; but, never anything other than absolutely authentic.

At their best live, it is as if each musician is not playing their own instruments, but rather the instruments of the other band members around them. It’s hard to explain, but startling to watch, particularly as they play within rhythms, melodies and tempos within a single song. It’s what every jamband aspires to, but the Waterboys at their best are effortless at at it. Their Washington DC show in the weeks after 9/11 was maybe the most empathic show I’ve ever seen both within a band and between a band and an audience.

On their Fall 2013 US tour, I was delighted to hear some new songs and a new direction in their music, which brings us to the nine songs on their excellent new album Modern Blues, released in the US on 2015-04-07.

Recorded in Nashville with American session musicians and long-standing musical ally Steve Wickham on violin, Modern Blues is Scott’s most consistently successful album in years, rating with the best work in his canon.

Modern Blues shines the spotlight on some of the sharpest, most observant and incisive lyrics of Scott’s long career. The music serves to support and highlight the lyrics, and the lyrics demand to be heard. They are more personal and less literary (and thus more universal) than much of Scott’s recent work; they really are more like poems set to music than traditional rock songs.

More than just the words themselves it is the way that Scott enunciates, pronounces and accents the words shows the exacting and precise placement of the writing. There’s not a single sloppy or excess word, even though some of the couplets are stuffed to the brim.

Released in the US a week after Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit, Modern Blues is an interesting counterpoint. Barnett seems to work hard to have a spontaneous stream-of-conscious, nearly throw-away style to her lyrics that belies the obvious care and craft that she’s put in, whereas with Modern Blues Scott let’s you see the meticulous, crafted brilliance he’s employed throughout.

Whether it’s a quick line like his description of Elvis Presley as “razor-quiffed and leather-squeezed, sideburns flickering in the breeze” in his vision of musicians and famous figures mixing together in the afterlife in I Can See Elvis, or the extended excellence of “The Girl Who Slept For Scotland”, each song has at least one lyrical sequence that pops out to you as you hear it.

“The Girl Who Slept For Scotland” is a sly, lyrical standout from start to finish. Based on the light-hearted title and chorus, it sounds like sort of a throwaway until you hear his description of a sexual tryst:

“…When we sang in tongues together and our synchronized guitars

Played music to the rafters and made love among the stars

And our bodies beat like light in love’s beautiful embrace

As her tiny kisses burst like popping suns around my face

But then drift, recline, collapse, the lights went out, she fell asleep again

Before my kiss-wet face was even dry”

Or try this verse I’m picking at random from the first single, Beautiful Now”:

 “Look down a carousel of years and darling there you are

A Dancer crying salty tears, a Vagabond, a Star

The Slayer of Mediocrity, of every sacred cow

You were beautiful then, sweet angel

You’re way more beautiful now”.

However, before you think that this is one of Those Difficult Albums That Are Hard Work To Listen To, this is actually perhaps the most accessible Waterboys album musically since Fisherman’s Blues. Whether it’s the up-tempo romp of the opener “Destinies Entwined”, the mid-tempo ballad “November Tale”, the jaunty and self-deprecating “Still A Freak”, the doo-wop vocals and handclaps of “I Can See Elvis”, or the gentle slow-dance elegy of “Nearest Thing To Hip”, this is inviting and entertaining music.

Beautiful Now” is probably the most poppy and dare I say radio-friendly single from Scott in years, with a bouncy beat, organ and backup vocals over an innocuous hook and melody that rewards repeated listening. In a more just world, this would be a hit on Adult Alternative Radio in the US.

Before I nominate Scott for sainthood, I personally didn’t think that “Long Strange Golden Road” needed the sample of Jack Kerouac reciting from “On The Road”, and I personally found the kissoff to a romantic rival in “Rosalind (You Married The Wrong Guy” to be too vitriolic to be appealing on repeated listens.

However, these are minor quibbles in what is otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable, likable album from start to finish, and for me it’s bound to be one of the notable albums of the year.

The album is scheduled to be on streaming services in the US as of 2015-04-07, but in the meantime you can find the album as a YouTube streaming playlist at:

Mr. Scott – feel free to continue making Big Music for the next three decades as well. I know that you never went away, but welcome back anyway.

Download: “Beautiful Now”, “The Girl Who Slept For Scotland”. Score: 9 Suns out of 10.

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Waterboys-MODERN

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