The cover of the Waterboys’ latest album “Modern Blues” displays a moss-covered figure with human hands barely peeking out of what seems an entirely overgrown structure. It’s a plushy, patchworky, faceless Green Man. Incongruous for an album of highly palatable alt-rock/blues? Only if you don’t know Mike Scott.
The Waterboys have been around since 1981, with a changing roster anchored by one continuous presence (save 1995-7, during which the band was on hiatus): Mike Scott. This Puckish rock troubadour has seen The Waterboys through a number of different sounds over the years, from 80s rock to Irish folk to a harder “sonic” rock sound to a more experimental setting of Yeats poetry to “Modern Blues”, recorded in Nashville and garnering him his first appearance on US shows like Letterman.
The Waterboys have always been a motley group that tended to hail variously from Scotland, Ireland and England, but “Modern Blues” features an American backing group with solid pedigree, such as former Aretha Franklin bassist David Hood, and keyboardist “Brother” Paul Brown, who has toured with Rush and Mike Ferris. The sounds are sweet and solid, nestled within the Waterboys ethos yet beating with the heart of Nashville, especially in Long Strange Golden Road, the November Tale of exes finding peace with each other, and The Girl Who Slept for Scotland, the odd story about a lover who was a champion sleeper. They concede nothing to today’s tendency for severely overhyped EDM or cotton-candy pop. If anything, Modern Blues feels as though it’s playing things just a bit too safe, not trying to innovate outside of the Big Music comfort zone. The sonic richness is the only thing that keeps it from feeling at times like it could have been released in the 80s or 90s.
Well, Mike Scott is a dedicated rock and roller who knows what he likes. But don’t be fooled – there’s actually quite a bit of edge in the spirit of this album. The sweet-spot rock lulls you in and before you know it, you hear Mike remark, “It was the nearest thing to hip in this shithole, and it’s gone.”
Mike Scott is a storyteller, with an engaging sound to his voice that seems to marry a sense of wonder and enthusiasm with a conversational tone, as though you’re in a pub together and he’s just got to sit you down and tell you this thing that happened. At its best there’s a sense of true awe, as has shone in the past through Glastonbury Song or This Is The Sea or The Big Music, and as we hear again by the end of this album’s leadoff track Destinies Entwined, that seems to contemplate the notion of the karmas we move through in our life. But there’s also a certain degree of punk rage glimpsed in Nearest Thing to Hip and Still a Freak, harking back to Is She Conscious and I Will Not Follow.
Modern Blues is Mike Scott continuing to bring a punk pagan spirit to even the institution of good old rock and roll. He has done some spiritual work and he seems to know not to take himself and his identity too seriously – “I’m just a bunch of words in pants, most of those are fiction.” Modern Blues, timeless rock, and a green man who almost wants to dissolve into nature – the cover nailed it.
Pranada Devi is a communications professional living in Toronto, Canada. She is the Managing Editor of Parvati Magazine, and serves as an advisor on marketing communications for Parvati’s various projects. She is the editor for Parvati’s book “Confessions of a Former Yoga Junkie: A Revolutionary Life Makeover for the Sincere Spiritual Seeker”. Prior to her career in communications, she was a performer, translator and reviewer of classical music.