Though it’s being billed as such, In a Special Place is not really a Waterboys album. It is basically frontman Mike Scott sitting at a piano for much of the entire duration, save for a few tracks where drum machines and the occasional guitar make their presence known, in addition to a remix. In a Special Place isn’t even a new Waterboys album, considering that it consists almost entirely of demos recorded in March 1985 at the very start of the sessions that would comprise the band’s third and breakthrough album, This Is the Sea. This might be puzzling to many observers, who may wonder why now, some 26 years after the release of said record, we’re getting a demos and outtakes record instead of a cleaned-up and remastered version of This Is the Sea with the aforementioned previously unreleased archival recordings tacked on as a bonus disc. (In fact, a reissued version of This Is the Sea appeared in 2004 with unreleased tracks from the recording sessions.)
This makes In a Special Place, which takes its name from the first line of This Is the Sea’s opener “Don’t Bang the Drum”, a real head-scratcher of a disc. While This Is the Sea is a good, albeit dated, time capsule of the Waterboys’ trademarked “Big Music” sound, it is arguably not even their best album: please see 1988’s Celtic-tinged, folksy, and astounding Fisherman’s Blues, which also remains the band’s best-selling album in its catalogue. It’s therefore hard not to look at In a Special Place as a contractual obligation album covering a debt to the band’s record label, because, in all reality, the world isn’t exactly crying out for the outtakes reel from the sessions that built the foundation for This Is the Sea. You’d be justified in asking yourself: what’s the point?
Truth be told, In a Special Place only features demos from five of the nine songs that comprise This Is the Sea: “Don’t Bang the Drum”, “The Whole of the Moon”, “The Pan Within”, “Old England”, and “Be My Enemy”. (Noticeably absent is a demo version of This Is the Sea’s title track, which is, in my opinion, the best thing to be found on the album.) The rest of the record’s 15 tracks are comprised of castaways or unreleased songs that didn’t make the cut for the final release. Some of these songs are mere fragments, such as “All the Bright Horses”, which only runs for 40 seconds. There is also a 2011 remix of This Is the Sea’s “Trumpets”, which is a little odd and out of place considering that it is almost lite-techno, replacing much of the song’s piano-led pounding for its introductory part with atmospheric keyboards. In a Special Place is a real mixed bag, one that purports to give listeners an indication of how some of the songs materialized into proper arrangements, and a sense of what didn’t fit in on This Is the Sea under the guise of incomplete previously unearthed material.
I happened to pull out my vinyl copy of This Is the Sea, which I found at an Ottawa, Canada, record store many years ago for the princely sum of a dollar, and did a compare and contrast between the songs on that disc and the demos that make up In a Special Place. The thing that really leaps out is just how fully formed and lengthy the songs on This Is the Sea are, making them sometimes, but not always, a million miles away from their counterparts in demo form. For instance, “Don’t Bang the Drum”, the introductory cut on both albums, is fully realized on This Is the Sea with an extended trumpet intro set against a thumping piano, that eventually transforms itself into a driving rock number with guitars pushed to the fore and a saxophone that eventually jazzes its way into the mix. On In a Special Place, the song is stripped bare, with just the plinking of a light piano against Scott’s echo-y vocals and none of the instrumentation found on the proper version, giving the sense that the song had ordinary origins and allowing the listener to appreciate the contributions to the finished version by saxophonist Anthony Thistlethwaite and bassist/keyboardist Karl Wallinger, who would go on to form the band World Party after recording This Is the Sea.
Meanwhile, “Old England” shows that there wasn’t much of a line to be drawn between the demo and the album version, considering that the melody and backing guitar line is pretty much intact. “Be My Enemy”, on the other hand, shows the contribution that Wallinger made to the cut, considering that the This Is the Sea version starts out with his stuttering keyboards, before launching into the proper song. Here, the song is simply rendered by Scott’s Jerry Lee Lewis-esque piano tinkling, which is a little incongruous considering that the proper album version has pianos low in the mix and the song is more of a scorching, rip-raring, guitar-driven rock song.
As for the cast-offs, you do get a sense as to why they were left off This Is the Sea. “Custer’s Blues” is a quiet, reflective ballad that seems to rub against This Is the Sea’s somewhat British-centric subject matter, seeing that it is a slice of Americana. (The song would get revived during the Fisherman’s Blues sessions a couple of years later.) “Beverly Penn” is a pleasant enough piano ditty, but it has more pop leanings than rock, again a different stylistic direction than This is the Sea. And, of course, the aforementioned “All the Bright Horses” is simply a sketch of a song, considering its brevity.
All in all, In a Special Place is probably only going to be of interest to long-time fans of the Waterboys, or perhaps scholars of ‘80s British rock. Though it is interesting, there is absolutely nothing on the disc that is earth-shaking or groundbreaking in terms of revealing the layers of what is simply a very good proper album in the form of This Is the Sea. The few exceptions arrive when you do get a sense that This Is the Sea was a fairly diplomatic affair in terms of fleshing out the album’s musicality, despite the fact that eight of the nine songs were ultimately arranged by Scott. The album also features the occasional botched notes, which are fitting for demos, and there’s a sense that many of these songs were whipped off quickly, as some of the tracks end with Scott flipping forward through his songbook to the next song to be recorded. The sound quality is also variable: “Beverly Penn” has a bit of muffled panning on it, as though the tape had gotten eaten up somewhere in the playback process. All of this really makes In a Special Place a rather unnecessary exercise. It would be understandable if these demos had appeared in conjunction with a version of This Is the Sea, which would at least allow fans to easily compare and contrast these versions with the full-band arrangements. As an “album” in and of itself, In a Special Place doesn’t really hold up, because even the tracks featuring completely unreleased material tends to be fragmented and incomplete.
While you really get a sense of the utility of these demos, in that they formed the backbone of the actual songs that appeared on This Is the Sea, the only reason that they exist is simply as a means of allowing the other band members to learn the songs, and embellish them using their own instrumentation. You also get the sense that these recordings allowed Scott to figure out what worked and what didn’t work in his songs, seeing as though many of the demos recorded here feature different lyrics from what actually appeared on the album. Ultimately, that makes In a Special Place more of an academic implementation than an actual collection of material that truly means something. For that reason, In a Special Place is hardly special at all, and its appeal is going to be limited to only a handful of people who truly care. Most likely, those who feel that This Is the Sea, rightfully or wrongly, is the band’s best work.