“People should expect the unexpected from The Waterboys,” says Mike Scott, a grin in his voice. It’s a mission statement which has inspired three decades of compelling musical shape-shifting, and one which yields thrilling results on The Waterboys’ magnificent eleventh album.
Recorded in Nashville, Modern Blues is an electric, eclectic, soulful, bold and gloriously freewheeling rock'n'roll record, arriving at a time when the relevance and popular reach of The Waterboys has never been greater. In 2013 Ellie Goulding scored a top 3 UK hit with their “How Long Will I Love You” and earlier this year Prince performed “The Whole of the Moon” solo at the piano during his Hit + Run show at Ronnie Scott’s in London, while the same song was performed by finalist Sally Barker on primetime BBC 1 show The Voice. In recent times “A Pagan Place” has become a live staple for hot US indie band The War on Drugs and Waterboys’ songs have been used in movies like About Time, Dom Hemingway and What We Did On Our Holiday.
Modern Blues contains nine more passionate songs, evoking the very best of The Waterboys past work while forging forth to explore new ground. Produced by Scott and mixed by Bob Clearmountain, the decision to record in the United States proved catalytic to its swaggering sound and spirit. “Nashville has a reputation as Music City, USA" says Scott, who lives mostly in Dublin, "and I fancied some of that. It’s one of the few cities that still has a recording studio industry intact, which brings the spur of competition. I know that across town Jack White's making a record, The Black Keys are making theirs, and I wanted to make an album that kicks their ass! I like that competitive feeling, it’s exciting. It's a spur.” Scott entered the studio intent on harnessing the rolling, spontaneous energy that fuelled some of The Waterboys’ greatest albums. “I set out to make a record with an ensemble playing live, to get that performance spirit. It’s how I recorded Fisherman’s Blues.”
To that end, he corralled old hands and new friends. Ralph Salmins, a mainstay on drums for the past four years, appears alongside Scott and talismanic Waterboy Steve Wickham, who weaves a dizzying fuzz fiddle spell on several tracks of Modern Blues. Fresh to the ranks are Memphis keyboard player “Brother” Paul Brown, and David Hood, legendary bassist from the heyday of FAME studios and Muscle Shoals. “I’ve got the man who played on “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” on bass!” Scott laughs. “He and Paul had a huge impact on the sound.” In true Waterboys’ style, a spirit of exploration defines the album. The gorgeous “November Tale” is a fluttering slice of Memphis soul, complete with swooping string arrangement and an authentically slinky guitar sound. “I wanted it to sound like Cornell Dupree,” says Scott, “that late 60s, sleazy soul guitar playing you'd hear on King Curtis records.”
The bubbling, soulful feel is bolstered by the appearance of Don Bryant, a veteran of Willie Mitchell’s Memphis soul crew and co-writer of the classic “I Can’t Stand the Rain”. Bryant adds falsetto vocals on “I Can See Elvis”, a beautiful, otherworldly glimpse of a celestial jam session featuring Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon and Charlie Parker – with John Lennon “doing handstands”. Part tribute, part redemptive vision, it comes garnished with playful doo-wops and a delicious pay-off line delivered by Scott in an idiosyncratic approximation of The King. As Scott says, with The Waterboys it’s always best to expect the unexpected.
This has always been so, and few bands have changed as much as this one. Formed in 1983, on their first three albums The Waterboys sculpted a layered post-punk sound, culminating in 1985’s sky-scraping This is the Sea. Since then the music has never ceased to evolve, from the hugely influential mix of Celtic folk, gospel, country and rock on the classic Fisherman’s Blues, to the New York guitar sounds of Dream Harder, the agitated Millennial sonic exploration of A Rock in the Weary Land, and the fired-up poetic passion of An Appointment with Mr Yeats.
Modern Blues delivers yet another wild mutation. The explosive “Destinies Entwined” kicks off proceedings in a shudder of shock waves: words fly like sparks, skies burn red, guitar and organ meet and merge in a churning soul-stew. “Rosalind (You Married the Wrong Guy)” is a brilliant, slouching, low-slung rocker, while the crunching blues of “Still a Freak” is a stirring declaration of individualism. “I once worked with a producer called Niko Bolas who used to say, ‘If you ain’t crazy there’s something wrong with you,’” says Scott. “I loved that. That’s the premise of the song: if you’re mentally healthy, you'll be sufficiently individual to qualify as a freak.” The sly, supple shuffle of “Nearest Thing to Hip” offers a breezy variation on the same theme, lamenting a world where the “twisted grace of the law of supply and demand” is rapidly ironing out every cultural quirk into one long, flat line of the “banal and the bland.”
Co-writing three tracks with Americana artist James Maddock and one apiece with Boston guitarist Jay Barclay and Scottish singer-songwriter Freddie Stevenson “took the songs into new and different areas", say Scott. "It brought an adventurousness, which is a turn-on for me.” The rousing chorus of the dream-like “The Girl Who Slept for Scotland” and the punchy pop-rock of “Beautiful Now” fulfil Scott’s desire to make uplifting and wide-open music for a large audience.
Modern Blues blows in on the back of the creative momentum built up by The Waterboys over the past few years. Having emerged from what Scott calls a “rootless” period, the band returned to their potent, poetic best on An Appointment with Mr Yeats, an album of fourteen W.B. Yeats poems set to rapturous rock music. Released in 2011, the record and tour were widely acclaimed as a career peak. That was followed in 2013 by Fisherman’s Box, an astonishing seven-disc collation of The Waterboys’ epic Irish sessions between 1986 and 1988, released to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Fisherman’s Blues. The subsequent tour eschewed easy nostalgia for something more vital, the seminal 80s line-up of Scott, Wickham, Anto Thistlethwaite and Trevor Hutchinson reuniting to re-explore and reframe these classic songs.
Now comes Modern Blues, definitive evidence that The Waterboys are in the midst of a stunning purple patch. The scope of the album’s ambition is exemplified by its magnificent 10-minute closer, “Long Strange Golden Road”, already destined to become a Waterboys’ classic. A mythic quest-song encompassing Druid colleges, dim-lit motel rooms and the “bright-lit neon canyons” of Tokyo, it features walk-on cameos from Aphrodite, Venus and the ghost of Jack Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty. Along the way it also captures something of Scott’s own compelling journey: from post-punk seer, raggle-taggle roustabout and spiritual seeker to the mercurial spirit of today, full of fire and attack. “Keep the river on your right / And the highway at your shoulder,” he sings as the music roars around him. “And the front line in your sights / Pioneer.” Modern Blues is the glorious, inimitable sound of The Waterboys driving forward once again, stretching up and out to the higher ground. [Graeme Thomson]