A history, and a literary lesson: in the mid 80s, when world and folk music were making their presence felt in the gap left by the decline of early 80s New Wave, in amongst the Latin rhythms and east European choral ensembles one of the most prominent UK bands were The Waterboys, the Scots/English/Irish folk rock hybrid that it was alright to like. Unusually, chart success didn’t dent The Waterboys credibility too greatly, and tracks such as “Whole Of The Moon” and “This Is The Sea” found their way onto top 40 compilations as readily as their albums helped inspire a fresh generation of acoustic troubadours, alongside The Pogues and The Men They Couldn’t Hang. Line up changes and differences over musical direction took an inevitable toll on the band, and 1993’s Dream Harder album was widely viewed as the Waterboys last full release, with both Mike Scott and Karl Wallinger moving onto different projects. It was always really Mike Scott’s band though, and some 18 years on the Waterboys return, with a collection of songs some of which were first composed by Mike Scott around two decades ago.
The fact that these songs all take their lyrics from the poetry of W.B. Yeats, the early 20th century writer who is to all intents and purposes Ireland’s national bard, does two things. The first is that after a number of solo Mike Scott albums, it very firmly recaptures The Waterboys audience, presenting the band as the interpreters of Ireland’s (and one of the English languages) most respected and accessible modernist writer, one whose Gaelic roots and defined sense of identity arguably give his words a more spirited air than the comparatively more dryly highbrow works of some of his contemporaries, such as W H Auden, Steven Spender, even Samuel Beckett. The second is that it places An Appointment With Mr. Yeats in what is a very awkward niche: I am unable to think of any similar albums or collections of songs aside from the score of the musical “Cats”, which takes its lyric from the writings of T.S.Eliot, and who wasn’t in one of his more intellectually challenging moods when he wrote “Magical Mr Mestophiles”. Anyone else would get a raised eyebrow and a polite thank you when taking on a project such as this, but Mike Scott has the ability, the reputation, and the actual scope as a musician and arranger required to make things work, and also to produce an album which is accessible to listeners who might not know anything about either The Waterboys or W.B. Yeats.
Fans of The Waterboys in their previous incarnations will find much to appreciate here. Mike Scott has retained the high flown romanticism and anthemic grandeur that are the hallmarks of the best of The Waterboys earlier music, and his and the rest of the bands enthusiasm quickly puts aside any idea that An Appointment … is an overly reverent or overstretched treatment of what are, if you read W.B. Yeats at school, some fairly well known writings. There is a notable difference between a sung poem and an actual song though, something which Mike Scott is probably very aware of. Some of the fourteen tracks are obviously dominated by the phrasing and rhythms of Yeats’ lyric, while only one or two are really complete ‘songs’, with the lyric and vocal working within, as opposed to alongside the music, although this doesn’t in any way detract from what is by anyone’s standards a really quite remarkable and resonant collection of music and words. Eighteen years in the making, An Appointment With Mr Yates is The Waterboys actual masterpiece.