“I have heard the Big Music, and I’ll never be the same.” With those words, back in 1984, The Waterboys‘ Mike Scott virtually defined an entire sub-genre of rock music: the sort of music that would eventually evolve to be ‘stadium rock’, embodied by both long-running bands (U2, Simple Minds), and the long-forgotten (Then Jericho anyone?). And, with a classic like The Whole Of The Moon in his back pocket, it was undeniable that Scott had a bit of a knack for The Big Music.
To his credit though, Scott has never been satisfied with retreading the same old ground. Since the mid-’80s, he’s experimented with raggle-taggle folk, country, blues, Christian rock and a surprising, if not altogether successful, attempt to set the poetry of WB Yeates to music. Yet no matter how flawed some of Scott’s experiments have been, you could never accuse him of being boring.
Until now, that is. Modern Blues is as uninspiring as its title would suggest, a collection of overly long boogie-rock jams recorded in Nashville but with few signs of the spark of inspiration we all know that Scott is capable of. It seems as if he’s trying to summon up the spirits of the rock greats (and, indeed, one song I Can See Elvis namechecks a lot of them) but much of Modern Blues sounds like a pale imitation of such legends.
So there’s Rosalind (You Married The Wrong Guy), which is presumably meant to be a hopelessly romantic declaration of unrequited love, but just comes across as spectacularly whiny – Scott spends a full five minutes over a ’70s soft rock beat telling the titular Rosalind, that she, yes, married the wrong guy, demanding she “pick up her skirts and flee” before proclaiming “you should have married me”. Yet at least that’s one of the more memorable tunes, which is more than you can say for anonymous plodders like Beautiful Now, or the 10 minute long closer Long Strange Golden Road, which brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “to overstay its welcome”.
Which is all very frustrating, because every now and again, the odd moment of reflective beauty sneaks through. November Tale is a nostalgic and wistful tale of meeting up with a lost love, and the decision to swap the heads-down boogie rock for some impassioned string-driven folk is a wise one. It’s also one of the welcome occasions where Scott manages to conjure up all sorts of bittersweet emotion in just a couple of lines: “We walked along a while, like we were old companions but I could feel the gap between us, yawning like a canyon.”
The Girl Who Slept For Scotland is similarly poignant and heartfelt, and the excellent Nearest Thing To Hip is the closest that the album comes to conjuring up the spirit of Van Morrison. Admittedly, its tale of Scott wandering round an old stomping-ground and complaining that everywhere that he used to hang out has been replaced by supermarkets and coffee shops does sound a bit like a confused old man shouting at traffic, but the Celtic Soul vibes are strong. If the whole album had adopted this sort of atmosphere, the words ‘career renaissance’ may well have been whispered.
As it is, Modern Blues is probably one for the fans only. Obviously, after a 30 year career, Mike Scott’s earned the right to explore whatever musical direction he likes (as he proudly boasts on Still A Freak: “I’m still here”) , but for those wishing to discover The Big Music for themselves, The Waterboys’ earlier material is probably still the best place to start.