The Waterboys - Modern Blues
Back in 1983 The Waterboys released a single called The Big Music, which was quickly adopted by journalists to describe the band's sound, and which at the time was a claustrophobic sweep of U2esque new wave, literary romanticism, and subtle celtic folk and rock dynamics. But it wasn't until the the follow up album, This Is The Sea, that Mike Scott (the only constant member of the band) managed to fine-tune The Big Music into something approaching sublime grandeur and panoramic euphoria, reaching the creative heights with 1988's Fisherman's Blues.
Fast forward to 2015, and The Big Music has become the Modern Blues; still grand, still euphoric, and still containing some of the key elements that turned heads when The Waterboys first made their mark. Scott's voice remains clear and strong, and forever speaking about, in his own words, 'perceiving spirit in the world, about being touched by a sense of the sacred'. On Modern Blues, there's plenty of thoughts on love and relationships, while the literary foundations of much of Scott's work remain intact, albeit much less so than his previous album, a work based on the writings of one Ireland's giants of poetry, WB Yeats. However, The Modern Blues also represents a marked detour towards classic American rock.
Lead track Destinies Entwined is perhaps a summation of Modern Blues, the spiritual quest folding and unfolding via the evolving journey that Scott continues to wholeheartedly embrace, both emotionally and intellectually. And the fact that the album was made in Nashville, with a number of top session players involved, means that here, as most elsewhere, there is a strong American musical palette, with Destinies Entwined coming through as a faintly Mariachi-meets-chugging rocker; organ and guitars to the fore, while Scott practically spits out the words. "Her point of view was radical, more than just a change of plan/she told me her proposal, which I didn't understand/she said the secret's in the road, I tried to decode the signs".
Meanwhile, The Steely Dan vibes of November Tale is an extension of Destinies Entwined, although told through a particular case study, rather than any general philosophising. It's an uplifting and engaging story about the attempted rekindling of a long-lost relationship, a theme that Scott visits more than once on Modern Blues, whether it be the women in his life, or a rose-tinted trip down memory lane.
The pub-rock, glam-boogie of Still A Freak, points to a direction that veers perilously close to MOR throughout the album, but the fantastic playing, and sophisticated lyricism – as most everywhere else – raises the bar substantially. In the case of Still A Freak, the electrifying, crazed, guitar solo helps to counterbalance the orthodoxy of the rhythm, while the lyrics continue to exude a deeper complexity than the musical foundations might imply: "I'm still a freak, I never went straight/I kept my appointment with fate/and like every human being that was born, I'm unique".
Album highlight I Can See Elvis explores Scott's continuing love of music and literature, and name checks some of the greats he has obviously been inspired by, and continues to be inspired by: Parker, Marley, Hendrix, Moon, Lennon, Gaye, Crazy Horse, Plato, Shakespeare et al.
The Girl Who Slept for Scotland is a little bit off the beaten track for Scott, in sound and style, although his storytelling ability shines through once again, while Rosalind (You Married The Wrong Guy) and Beautiful Now both showcase the americanisation of Scott and band, although not particularly  successfully in the case of Roasalind. Beautiful Now works better though, the tasteful Tom Petty mid-tempo rocking grooves underlaying a relatively straight forward love song.
Penultimate track, the rootsy nostalgia of Nearest Thing To Hip revisits his formative years, bemoaning the loss of bohemian culture vis-a-vis coffee shops, book and record stores (he should come to Brighton!). Conversely, Long Straight Golden Road signifies the past, present and future, as Scott details his on-going journey down the highways and byways of counterculture, signposted by a snippet of Jack Kerouac reading from his Beat-lit classic, On The Road, before the players again purloin the long worn highways of classically chugging American rock, like a revved up Dylan, the band riding that particular musical road with aplomb, enthusiastically encouraged by their band leader.
A significant departure from the conceptual, and firmly Irish-rooted An Appointment with Mr Yeats, Scott largely eschews celtic folk-rock in favour of borrowing from America's rich rock'n'roll tapestry, whilst mixing up beat poetry, love songs and spiritual discovery. In title, Modern Blues may imply a downbeat collection of woe and heartache, but as always, Scott's music has an irresistible and strong beating heart, full of searching optimism and meaningful contemplation, both on the humanistic and spiritual planes. "Men were digging, men were building, men were killing time/I took a spade and volunteered, a pioneer, our destinies entwined".
Jeff Hemmings