When Mike Scott bounded on stage to sing with Colin Meloy at The Decemberists‘ gig at Shepherd’s Bush, London this year he looked completely unchanged, a stick of a man in tight dark trousers and pointy toed boots with a mop of matted black curls, and sounded just as he did in the ’80s, belting out folk-tinged Celtic rock. Maybe he was simply waiting for black drainpipes to return to fashion before launching a second comeback.
There was a brief moment in the ’80s when The Waterboys were tipped to become the ‘Next Big Thing’ – the mid-80s were a wasteland of indecision and fragmented music scenes, remember, and many were called but few actually managed to sustain their temporary notoriety (or indeed extend it to include more than a handful of music paper hacks and John Peel listeners).
What was striking about them at the time is that had a very solid vision, their songs were more passionate than some of the more fey offerings around, their music offering the cheerful swing of Irish folk and a pumping trumpet that was a late gift from the northern soul revival. And mature front man Mike Scott could turn out striking song concepts like Church Not Made By Hands and A Girl Called Johnnie, with seductive lyrics that were poetic but not too clever, his voice cracking with emotion as he sang them.
The first thing you notice about the ‘new’ Waterboys is that their sound is heavier, more guitar driven, with less skirling fiddle (although original Waterboys’ electric fiddler Steve Wickham is involved). The current recording lineup mixes old hands (trumpeter Roddy Lorimer, keyboard player Richard Naiff) with a mix of young and old newcomers. New guitarist Leo Abrahams puts the firmest stamp on their sound, but thanks to Scott’s distinctive writing style and delivery they haven’t strayed too far from what old fans expect.
There are songs that would slot straight into their late ’80s repertoire, particularly the lengthy Everybody Takes A Tumble and the gentle, acoustic guitar-led Man With The Wind At His Heels, with its fairytale lyric and repetitive form, which end the album. In fact it’s a collection of songs that get much better towards the end, after a beginning that’s rocky in two sense of the word.
The opening track, Crash of Angel Wings, typifies the newer sound – melodic but quite heavy guitar, a slightly nasal vocal with strong emphasis on the rhymes, that quickly moves from conversational to excited. Some of the rhymes are immediately worrying, and strike you as a little forced (swinging her skirts/talking in spurts for instance). It’s followed by Love Will Shoot You which has a strident, rocking guitar intro and a simplistic lyric that makes it sound more like heavy metal than Celtic Dawn. I could be nice and say it’s a classic rock sort of track, but the musical world is littered with poor material like this and we can do without adding to the heap.
It’s not the only culprit on the album – She Tried To Hold Me is just tedious. For some reason Scott seems to have become deeply attached to mid sentence rhyme schemes, feminine rhymes, and the kind of cheesy mismatching you can get away with in the middle of fast-moving rap track, but which really grates in this setting.
As soon as things slow down they improve. Nobody’s Baby Anymore and Strange Arrangement showcases Scott’s storytelling skills and playful use of language, while Sustain demonstrates his pithy, bitter side and is surely the outstanding track here.
I think the great misfortune of this album is that it does best what The Waterboys always did – create joyous songs where the visually inspiring lyrics are lifted up by ascending fiddle melodies, alongside lovingly crafted slow numbers where the sweetness of the melodies often belies the harsher subject matter. But it doesn’t do it enough of the time. Everyone wants to evolve and try new things but, in their case, the results seem to be, putting it charitably, leaden. If you’ve very good at something, stick to it.