The Waterboys are a perfect example of the borrowed adage “you can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” I think I worded that right. It had better be right, because arranging the proper phrasing has given me a headache.
In any case, The Waterboys never pleased all the people all of the time. Ardent fans of the band, sparse but passionate (no Waterboys’ album ever made it past #13 in the UK, and their releases fared even worse in the U.S.), were uniformly divided between the “big music” sound of the albums A Pagan Place (1984) and This is the Sea (1985), as opposed to the folk-themed Fisherman’s Blues (1988) and Room to Roam (1990).
A line was drawn in the sand, and both sides seemed intractable as to which albums they preferred. To make matters worse, Waterboys’ front man and principal composer Mike Scott changed directions yet again with a slicker, more rocking release entitled Dream Harder (1993). Although listed as a “Waterboys” album, Dream Harder had all session musicians backing Scott, and sounds like 12-step affirmation seminar put to fuzz-toned guitars. Needless to say, the album pleased absolutely no one.
But I come here not to damn The Waterboys for their eccentric inconsistencies; rather, I come to praise them for a tremendous album. Fisherman’s Blues (1988) has a sawdust-on-wood-floor, backroom-of-the-pub feel that transcends the dreary 1980s, a droning era of tortured hair and angsty hermaphrodites. In fact, it is an album that defies the soulless in-synth-sibilities of that senseless decade, and draws deeply from the well of roots music with an eclectic mix of inspirations: Irish/Scottish traditional music, country-western, 60s folk, and even some of the grandiose rock sound from This is the Sea. It is an album both out of time with its epoch and timeless in its rustic appeal.
Mike Scott (expanding on the sleeve notes he wrote for the CD remaster of the album) stated, “Fisherman’s Blues was made in 1986-88, a period when third generation rock musicians, having learned their trade listening to 1960s and 70s pop or rock music, and finding themselves remote from the original roots of rock itself, went in search of a deeper resonance, a deeper grounding.” Nowhere is that sentiment better realized than on Fisherman’s Blues, an album steeped in tradition, yet brimming with the vitality of newfound revelation.
The epiphanic nature of the compositions reflects the material Mike Scott and his bandmates (primarily, fiddler Steve Wickham and multi-instrumentalist Antho Thistlewaite) used as their principal muse. Many critics and casual listeners consider Fisherman’s Blues an album of Gaelicized rock along the lines of the Irish-punk propagated by The Pogues; however, a deeper listen will divine subtle variations in the music and a wider range of inspiration. For instance, “Has Anybody Here Seen Hank”, a twangy bit of lonesome ol’ country blues, invokes the spirit of Hank Williams Sr. right down to the yodeling delivery of Scott. Scott is also at his scatting best when he takes a turn at Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing”, one of the best versions of that tune since the crooning Irish gnome sang it himself, and the surprise segue into the Beatles’ “Blackbird” is an inspired piece of improvisation.
The album even offers a geographically-localized version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land”, but one of the most stunning achievements of Fisherman’s Blues is the achingly beautiful musical rendition of W. B. Yeats’ poem “The Stolen Child”. The poem is spoken with the appropriate lilting brogue by traditional Irish vocalist Tomás Mac Eoin and is accompanied by Mike Scott’s sung refrain, and captures the lush and mysterious tone of Yeats’ famous poem of faery abduction. No finer interpretation of a poem is available on any rock album.
Musically speaking, Fisherman’s Blues is carried on the bowstring of violinist Steve Wickham, whose fiddling is used to great effect on nearly every song on the album. Of particular note is the incessant hornet’s nest buzz of his bowing on the bitter song “We Will Not Be Lovers”. The stridency of the violent violin adds to the vitriol of Mike Scott’s lyrics (“Words are your weapon/ Lies are your defense/ I know what you want/ And I see what you see/ You’re looking for somebody/ But he isn’t me”) to create a charged atmosphere of anger and anxiety perfect for the sentiment (or lack thereof) of the song. “World Party” (the title of which Karl Wallinger, an ex-Waterboy, used to name his own band) matches Wickham’s fierce fiddle with Scott’s hissing and wiry guitar licks for a song that hearkens back to the fuller sound The Waterboys engineered on This is the Sea. In addition, Wickham’s virtuosity is lent to Antho Thistlewaite’s homely but handsome barn dance, “Jim Hickey’s Waltz”, and the pastoral simplicity of “Dunford’s Fancy”.
But the album is given its drive and cohesion by Mike Scott’s vision, passion and clever turn-of-a-phrase: “When Ye Go Away”, a bittersweet tale of love and loss, is given a wistful and winsome treatment by Scott (“I’ve got some to say and more to tell/ and the words will soon be spilling from my tongue/ I will rave and I will ramble/ I’ll do everything but make you stay…”); whereas “And a Bang on the Ear”, perhaps the best song on the entire album, is a tour-de-force of storytelling, a semi-autobiographical reverie on the various loves in Scott’s life (and as a singer in a band, he’s obviously had quite a few), chronicling his first painfully shy encounter with unrequited love, to relationships gone wrong (“The home I made with Bella became a house of pain/ we weathered it together bound by a ball and chain”), to two ships passing in the night (“Krista was a rover from Canada she hailed/ we crossed swords in San Francisco we both lived to tell the tale”), to the final, climactic love of his life (up to that point, anyway).
Of course, the title track “Fisherman’s Blues” — which is, incidentally, neither a blues tune, nor has anything to do with fishing — contains some of Scott’s most striking verses (“I wish I was the brakeman/ on a hurtling fevered train/ crashing head long into the heartland/ like a cannon in the rain”), and is one of The Waterboys’ most widely covered tunes (the Young Dubliners do a fabulous version). The song is also featured prominently in the movies Good Will Hunting and Waking Ned Devine (“And a Bang on the Ear” appears on the soundtrack of The Matchmaker).
In the final analysis, Fisherman’s Blues is The Waterboys’ finest album, followed closely by This is the Sea, and Fisherman’s folksy soulmate Room to Roam; however, it doesn’t really matter which of the three you prefer, given that the time period between 1985-90 marked an astounding period of musical adventure and creativity for The Waterboys, a sadly underrated and underappreciated band in a period of music that relied more on angst and image than substance. Sometimes the simpler things in life are, indeed, the best.