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.
Of course Yeats didn’t just write about mystical and ancient Ireland, he wrote about what he saw around him as well. Scott makes sure we remember that by including a version of “September 1913”, Yeats’ poem about what’s come to be known as the Dublin Lockout. Labourers had gone on strike for better working conditions and were betrayed by the church and Irish politicians. In his poem, Yeats asks is this what our freedom fighters died for? Did we throw off the yoke of one master only to trade it for another? “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone/It’s with O’Leary in the grave”.
If that wasn’t potent enough for you, Scott has also included a version of the simple yet haunting “Let The Earth Bear Witness”. It’s a beautiful prayer of remembrance for those who have the bravery to resist oppression in spite of the personal cost. Yeats wrote it as a general paean for all those who have given of themselves in the hopes others might have a better life. “They shall be remembered for ever/They shall be alive for ever/They shall be speaking for ever/The people shall hear them for ever/Let the sea bear witness/Let the wind bear witness/Let the earth bear witness/Let the stars bear witness”.
Scott has chosen to identify the song with the Iranian people who took to the streets a couple of years ago in an attempt to change their world, only to be crushed under foot by the regime. In the video for the song, he sets the tune to footage of the protests and the ensuing crackdown in an effort to keep the memory of those brave people alive. Here again he and the band have created music appropriate to the poem’s spirit and words by letting their simplicity and starkness speak for themselves.
In order to do proper justice to the diversity of thought and emotion found in the poetry of a man like Yeats, a band has to be able to carry off not only a variety of musical styles but be willing to subjugate their own desires to the needs of the work. The Waterboys have the versatility and artistry required to take you out of this world into the realm of magic and myth and to bring you solidly back down to earth to face reality just like the poetry of Yeats did to its readers 100 years ago. In the process of doing so, they (especially Scott as lead singer) turn themselves into conduits for the poet’s thoughts and ideas. Like the best actors, they remember it’s the message that’s important, not the messenger.
An Appointment with Mr. Yeats is one of those rare treats in popular music where the words and music come together in a perfect marriage. Not only does the music reflect the emotional context of the words they accompany, but the band has also managed to find a way to create an atmosphere for each song which makes them living and breathing creations. Even better is the fact that they do this while remaining true to the spirit of the poems and the poet’s intentions. The words of William Butler Yeats have never sounded so alive and so real.
(Photo of The Waterboys: Paul MacManus)