Mike Scott is one of rock’s most endearingly adventurous figures as well as one of its most talented. Over a long career starting in the early eighties he has constantly confounded listeners (and himself, no doubt) with the twists and turns of his artistic ambitions, which are considerable. And you know, most of the time he hits the mark, or at least gets close to it, all the while wearing his heart on his sleeve for all to see. No secrets with this guy!
Scott unleashed The Waterboys on the world in 1983 as cofounders of a British movement away (along with the likes of U2, Simple Minds, Big Country, etc.) from the bare-bones basics of punk and post-punk and back to the sort of unfettered creativity heard in the mid-seventies, albeit stripped of the excesses that led to Tales from Topographic Oceans. The Waterboys’ second album of the “Big Music”, A Pagan Place, was as ambitious and grandiose as you can get, crashing, bashing, crescendoing songs littered with mysticism, literary and historical references and kept on point by Scott’s laser screech of a voice. A mix of progressive rock influences, new wave, folk, anything he pleased, it was quite the calling card.
Scott toned things down a touch on the band’s third album, This is the Sea (1985), but not much, as the velvety purple lyrics of “The Pan Within” attest. The album provided some all-time classics, however, such as the eternally moving and uplifting “The Whole of the Moon” (who doesn’t like that song?) and the inspirational lyrics of the title track. Unafraid to be perceived as overreaching and thus opening himself to accusations of pretentiousness by more prosaic beings, Scott was trying to work on a higher plane where rock music really could touch souls and change lives. It is in fact Scott’s profound but down-to-earth devotion to humanism and spiritual compassion that has come to define his work in many ways.
However, perhaps appreciating that he had grown too big for his britches, Scott then took up residence in Ireland and totally changed the band’s sound. Keyboardist Karl Wallinger had decamped to form the equally successful World Party, leaving Scott with a skeleton crew of Waterboys members, augmented by fiddler Steve Wickham, who would play a crucial role in the band’s future endeavours.
Scott’s new obsessions being Irish traditional music and the work of W.B. Yeats, Fisherman’s Blues (1988) is a sprawling Van Morrison-esque carpet of folky, jazzy exultation, right from the title track through to the Yeats recitation of “The Stolen Child”. While it’s not always totally successful track-by-track, the album is rightfully considered a classic. And as a bonus, somewhere along the way Scott allowed his sense of humour to creep into the proceedings.
After delving even further into traditional music sounds on Room to Roam, Scott once again changed gears with the fabulous Dream Harder album (1993), which is a brave effort but probably killed off much of his new bandwagon North American folk following, considering how often I used to see it at used CD shops (it appears to have done very well in the UK). While there is still a folk influence hanging about, the album is a rifftastic feast of hard rock/glam guitar licks and inspirational sentiments inspired by Scott’s newfound involvement with the Findhorn Institute, a retreat community for kindly mystics. The album lent his repertoire a couple of killer live tracks, especially the groovy “Glastonbury Song“.
Perhaps sensing the Waterboys brand had run its course for the time being, Scott produced a couple of solo albums, the lovely, intimate and personal folk album Bring ‘Em All In (1995) and Still Burning (1997), a less artistically successful album than Dream Harder but in the same classic rock vein.
Which takes us to 2000. By this time Scott’s musical personality had mellowed like a fine wine into an equal parts combination of pixyish Donovan, rocking and elfin Marc Bolan and cheekily witty Billy Connolly. All of the elements he had used throughout his career were now tossed into a glorious stew of folk and rock and a finely honed lyrical sharpness that sometimes equalled Dylan in the elegance and wit of its wordsmithery. Yes, indeed, Mike Scott is one of rock and roll’s primo lyricists, capable of intensely moving a listener, or mightily but entertainingly confusing him, or just plain spinning a good yarn, with a true gift for a memorable turn of phrase.
Add all this to a new devotion to production innovation and you have A Rock in the Weary Land, an album that has not received nearly enough acclaim but kick-started a renaissance for Scott that has led to other unimpeachably fine albums such as the spiritual folk album Universal Hall (check out this mindblowing live rendition of “Peace of Iona” from a subsequent live album) , the rockin’ The Book of Lightning and the remarkably successful marriage of poetry and Celtic rock of An Appointment With Mr. Yeats.
Every trick in the rock and roll production book is thrown at us, from fat, fuzzy basses to an array of cool keyboard and synth sounds to distorted, clattering drums. The record starts with the eerie synths and muted, razor-sharp chords of “Let it Happen” as Scott intones in his raspy, world-weary mature singing voice such witticisms as “He said ‘This is the real world buddy! Toughen up your ass, or it’ll break.’ I said ‘I’m not your buddy, buddy, And your real world is a fake.'” Thus demonstrating his gift for imparting mystical concepts in an engaging and fun manner. He’s dubbed this music “sonic rock”, and indeed, the swirling organs, chugging axes and skittering drums are pretty far out there.
The title-ish track is an eight-minute gospel music-influenced monolith with gang vocals, fuzz bass and elegant piano. Basically, eat your heart out, McCartney!
After this stentorian beginning, Scott pulls things back on “It’s All Gone”, an odd little acoustic piece that is followed by the spectral “Is She Conscious“, a very disquieting piano-led song that while not stating it openly is clearly about the divorce and death of Princess Diana (“he was ugly, she was beautiful” and “Is she conscious of the chauffeur as he drives? / Is she conscious as the ambulance arrives?”). Pure songwriting genius.
“Malediction” is another eerie acoustic song in the vein of Bring ‘Em All In, full of dark Scottish Celtic-style imagery that could be straight out of a Child ballad and demonstrates a rare aptitude for making archaic poetic language sound fresh and hip. Not an easy task.
The very odd “Dumbing Down the World” takes shots at Satan and stupid people in a crazy cosmic blues in which even Scott’s voice is heavily distorted. Not for everyone but a pretty effective sonic experiment. Following that vein, “His Word is Not His Bond” has similar fuzzy production, but Scott’s voice is clearer as he takes aim at the liars who rule our sad little world: “He lives in the waste void of culture and taste.” However, in the upbeat bridge, Scott shows a little sympathy for our misguided suit-wearing shark, wishing he could break him and watch him dance! Not much chance of that, Mike.
“The Charlatan’s Lament” is a mournful lament by a soul at its wit’s end — since Scott is such a spiritual seeker, no doubt he’s had many such moments: “I swing between tears and wonder.” I hear ya, buddy.
To me the album’s enduring jewel is the second-to-last track, “The Wind in the Wires“, an apocalyptic folksong full of dark imagery from a bygone era, in addition to being hauntingly melodic. “Wake lady wake the hills are in flood / And the road we must take / Is a river of blood” is one of the choicest lines as our protagonists flee unknown horrible pursuers. If this ain’t a song by a guy at the top of his game, I don’t know what is.
Finally, Scott rounds things off with “Crown“, a long buildup of a hard-rockin’ song that gets louder and louder and more aggressive as it goes on. It’s his statement of intent: no matter how he’s sinned and fucked up (and his list of little sins here is a long one), Scott knows his heart is pure and “when love comes tumbling down”, he’ll “wear a crown”. Indeed! There’s a place for Mr. Scott by the Lord’s right hand, simply due to the enlightenment, consolation and pleasure his music has given lonely souls such as mine.
I should add that the musicians drafted in, including future Waterboys keyboard player Richard Naiff, do Scott proud with incredible performances.
A Rock in the Weary Land is a massive achievement that may be almost fifteen years old but sounds fresher than almost anything I hear today, and it contains some of the finest songs by one of rock’s greatest songwriters. What more impetus do you need to pick this up?