While many people think song lyrics and poetry are interchangeable, the truth of the matter is there are very few songwriters whose work matches up against poetry. On the other hand, just because a poem is wonderful to read doesn’t mean it would necessarily make a good song. For while lyrics are written with the intent of setting them to music, including such considerations as melody and rhythm, a poet rarely concerns him or herself with those issues. People like Leonard Cohen, who records his poetry as songs with little or no alteration to their lyrics or meaning, are an exception.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons such a relatively small amount of pre-existing poetry is set to music. Certainly there have been attempts, but considering the amount of English language poetry available, the number is insignificant. So when I heard that Mike Scott and The Waterboys had released an album of music based on the poetry of Irish poet William Butler Yeats, I was intrigued. Originally released in 2011 in the UK on Proper Records, An Appointment with Mr. Yeats is now available in North America.
The album was obviously a labour of love for Scott as it wasn’t something he rushed into. Over the course of two decades he gradually chose and adapted the poems used on this recording. His intent was to make a collection of songs which would sound no different from other Waterboys’ recordings, with lyrics written by a guest artist. “The best thing is when people don’t realize they were written a hundred years ago, but just hear them and think, ‘That’s a song’”, he’s quoted as saying in the press materials accompanying the CD.
I don’t think anyone is going to mistake the language of poetry written in the early part of the 20th century for something penned today. I’m sure there are songwriters who may write about the same subject matter, Celtic and Greek mythology and philosophers of the ancient world like Pythagorus, but I seriously doubt they would use the same turns of phrase as Yeats. However, Scott and the Waterboys have certainly succeeded in turning the poems selected into modern songs. Anyone familiar with the band’s sound from earlier albums This Is the Sea and Fisherman’s Blues will recognize their distinctive flavour throughout this disc.
The question is does this marriage of modern post punk pop and early 20th century poetry work? Some purists might find Scott’s interpretations difficult and jarring because of the nature of their sound. However, if you listen to the lyrics accompanying the music, you’ll realize Scott has done a wonderful job of creating music which expresses the emotions and thoughts in the poem. The song leading off the disc, “The Hosting of the Shee” (or Sidhe), celebrates mythical Celtic warrior heroes marching off to war. “The winds awaken/The leaves whirl round/Our cheeks are pale/Our hair unbound/Our breasts are heaving/Our eyes are apart/And if any gaze on our rushing band/We come between him and the deed of his hand/We come between him and the hope of his heart”.
The music accompanying these lyrics express both the thrill of watching these mythical warriors of the fairy world marching off to war, while at the same time capturing the effects of their passing on the natural world. As you listen to the words of the poem come together with the music, you can visualize the wild and fey army marching through the world and nature reacting to their passage. It’s as frightening and jarring as you might imagine it would be witnessing the passage of such creatures.