If early-’80s new pop showed one route out of the scuffed idealism and local concerns of post-punk, The Waterboys hoped for a more romantic, royal road. Indeed “The Big Music”, from 1984’s A Pagan Place, was a clarion call for a certain strain of mid-’80s would-be British Cosmic Music. Like Celtic soul brother Kevin Rowland, Scott was an inveterate manifesto writer. The first two Waterboys records are full of promises of paganism and immensity, like an evangelist heralding the promised land…but, first: another sermon. This Is The Sea, the band’s third album, may be as close as anyone is likely to get to the music of his dreams.
It begins portentously enough, with widescreen Morricone atmospherics, before erupting into “Don’t Bang The Drum”. It’s another manifesto: you can’t help but read it as a dig at the flag-waving of early U2. Scott was after a sweeter, questing, spontaneous pop prosody, and on “The Whole Of The Moon” he kind of delivered. A jukebox fixture for years, it remains a magnificent folly, a glimpse into a pop Narnia where Prince OD’d on Van, not Joni. It’s the only song on the record that attempts to reinvent the ’80s rather than escape them.
It’s a brief interlude. “Spirit” and “The Pan Within” continue Scott’s quest for the old spirits of the islands, evoking wide-eyed rapture at a very benign paganism (there’s nothing as daemonic as The Wicker Man’s Summerisle here). Scott’s infatuation with the Orphic charms of Dylan (“Be My Enemy”), Patti Smith and Springsteen leads him up strange roads. While they were romantics, they were also instinctively modernists, welding glamour from the facts of American life. In search of a similar romantic hit, Scott ends up with a song like “Medicine Bow”, a dream of stowing away to sea, like something The Boss might have written in the late 18th century.
In the new sleevenotes, Scott writes of being inspired by “the holy triumvirate” of the Velvets, Astral Weeks and Steve Reich. This sounds like an admirable programme, but for all the record’s pleasures, you don’t get much sense of it from This Is The Sea. Instead, it makes you think of The Blue Nile: compare “The Whole Of The Moon”‘s delirious litany (“Unicorns and cannonballs, palaces and piers, trumpets, towers and tenements…”) with its sober echo in “Downtown Lights” (“Chimney tops and trumpets, the golden lights, the loving prayers, the coloured shoes, the empty trains”).
You get a glimpse of a road untaken on the extra disc, with synthetic instrumentals like “The Waves”, but with the departure of keyboardist Karl Wallinger to form World Party, there was nowhere for Scott to go but…”This Is The Sea”, the closing track, a gorgeously lush cinemascope swim through Van’s “Sweet Thing”. And then over ever stranger seas, a pop Ancient Mariner, before washing up on the far folk shores of “Fisherman’s Blues”.