It was still only 1984 when, on The Waterboys’ second album A Pagan Place, Mike Scott revealed “The Thrill Is Gone”, a mournful eulogy to the growing realisation that a relationship has run its course. It’s a line that’s at times haunted both him and his audience: Scott’s pursued a dedicated but haphazard path, trying copious genres on for size, and sometimes – not least around 1993’s Dream Harder, which led to the group’s original dissolution – he’s lost his way.
Since reanimating the Waterboys name in 2000, however, and especially over the last decade, his openness to his muse’s whims appears to have restored the thrill. He successfully hosted his long-time hero’s poetry on 2011’s An Appointment With Mr Yeats, identified likeminded souls in Muscle Shoals for 2015’s Modern Blues, transformed himself into a bedroom producer for 2017’s Out Of All This Blue, then drew upon elements of all three for last year’s Where The Action Is. None were flawless, of course, but their strengths outweighed their weaknesses thanks, as much as anything, to Scott’s enduring individuality.
Such idiosyncrasy ensures The Waterboys’ 14th album is likewise engaging, Scott’s aesthetic encapsulated in “Postcard From The Celtic Dreamtime”, a vivid spoken-word depiction, set to a sparkling downtempo groove, of his retreat indoors during a storm on Ireland’s west coast. He recounts how “the ever-present past and the ever-passing present blend with the landscape”, and this timeless collection is full of the wide-eyed mysticism that’s coloured so much of his catalogue, while remaining alert to the traditions with which he works.
Good Luck, Seeker opens with the brassy “The Soul Singer”, a rambunctious portrait celebrating a veteran performer’s talent (“his genius was uncontained”) while acknowledging his defects (“they call him curmudgeon”). Possibly inadvertently, it places Scott, who concludes with James Brown meows, in a similar lineage, his vocabulary indicative of the qualities for which he lauds this “poet prince of the high trapeze”. Later he extols another complicated icon in the comparably rowdy “Dennis Hopper”, winningly described as a “dude with a ’tache on a chariot chopper”. Backed by Ralph Salmins’ crunching beat, his voice albeit perhaps ill-advisedly processed, Scott satisfies his ongoing urge, even in his seventh decade, to enjoy rock’n’roll’s simple pleasures while basking in multiple mythologies, noting “his suit’s as slick as a lick by Cropper”.
A cover of kindred spirit Kate Bush’s “Why Should I Love You?” also captures Scott’s newfound happiness in marriage and fatherhood, epitomised in his gasped “Did you ever see a statue of Buddha laughing?/Oh! That’s one beautiful smile”. Other breakbeat-driven tunes, however, are less convincing. “The Golden Work”’s superfluous vocal effects are almost as archaic as its “druids” and “Cornish kings”, and “Freak Street”’s short-lived psychedelic interlude eclipses the song’s desultory drift towards its conclusion. The fairy-tale-like “You’ve Got To Kiss A Frog Or Two”, meanwhile, sadly falls short of achieving for ’80s soul what Lambchop did for its ’70s equivalent on Nixon.
In the album’s closing half a dozen songs, though, Scott explores more esoteric realms only hinted at earlier by his surprisingly edgy interpretation of traditional folk tune “Low Down In The Broom”. Using rhythmic discipline as the foundation for more metaphysical and – aside from “Everchanging”’s filthy, furious, guitar-fuelled poetry – more contemplative investigations, he shares life lessons in the words of 19th-century American philosopher William James on “Beauty In Repetition” and, on the shuffling, title track, recites texts, like a dusty, aristocratic guru, from Dion Fortune’s The Mystical Qabalah and The Esoteric Philosophy Of Love And Marriage, with additional trimmings sampled from 2012’s Diversions, Vol 2: The Unthanks With Brighouse And Rastrick Brass Band. “On The Land Of Sunset”, furthermore, he returns, though more pensively, to the world of Dream Harder’s “Glastonbury Song”, accompanied this time by a sample of Peadar O’Riada’s penny whistle as he reflects, Jackanory style, on a moment of intimate significance.
It’s “My Wanderings In The Weary Land”, however, that best summarises Good Luck, Seeker’s pioneering resolve. With old comrade Steve Wickham’s wild, cyclical violin lines harrying him on towards another epic climax, Scott relates a partially autobiographical tale of a long journey towards personal and artistic redemption, his unadulterated joy in howling “This place is love’s fortress/And so am I!” indicative of the thrill he still finds in music. Gathering together the strands that have occupied him throughout his career, he’s forged an album of passion, wit and spirituality that, like its title, invites us not only to evolve, but to revel in our evolution. He’s certainly worthy of the epithet Dennis Hopper offered Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now: “a poet warrior in the classic sense”.
Mike Scott on “joke songs” and “the Pan within”
You appear to be having a great deal of fun. Did you ever baulk at using humour in songs like “Dennis Hopper”?
I often made up joke songs as a teenager and young bandleader, and since I worked out how to do it in my “official” music on ‘Hank’ and ‘And A Bang On The Ear’ back in 1988, I’ve carried on. I hope you caught the “Get yourself on the outside of this, mate, it’ll blow yer mind” joke in the third chorus of ‘…Hopper’ in the right-hand speaker.
Can you tell me more about Dion Fortune, whose words you share?
She was a British mystical author active between the 1920s and ’40s. I love her way with words, and they taught me a lot over the years. She was also the source of the phrase “the Pan within” and wrote a beautiful book about Glastonbury in 1934 called Avalon Of The Heart, which is where Van Morrison got the song title. Bowie also was a reader.
How did you end up working with The Unthanks?
They played a show with us in 2012 and I loved their music. On one of their albums was a fantastic instrumental section with a brass band. I turned it backwards in search of sonic fun and it sounded awesome. For seven years it’s been part of our pre-show music. Finally, I took that Dion Fortune extract and turned it into “Good Luck Seeker”.