The Waterboys probably wouldn’t register with a large segment of the population if it weren’t for their grand and triumphal 1985 song, “The Whole of the Moon”. Now, I’m not suggesting they were a one hit wonder. Though, technically, that might be true. The song was certainly their biggest chart success. And, even though they recorded full albums that have deservedly received heaps of critical praise, the Waterboys are cursed by the popularity of their signature tune. Perhaps if they’d chosen to maintain a more consistent sound, this effect might not be so bad. From release to release, their listeners’ expectations would largely be met. They would offer few surprises, but at least they wouldn’t confound their fanbase. But this is not the kind of band that Mike Scott, leader of the Waterboys, has nourished over the past twenty-plus years.
I hope what I’ve gotten across is this major point: Don’t listen to this album expecting to hear “The Whole of the Moon”. For that matter, put out of your mind the sound of its edgy, cavernous, and excellent parent album, This Is the Sea. Forget all about its predecessors, too: the college rock-y A Pagan Place (1984) and their 4AD-like 1983 self-titled debut. Maybe this seems reasonable to you. After all, these records are now two decades old. Who hasn’t changed a lot since the ’80s? Well, you can also pay no heed to the band’s lackluster and traditional Celtic-leaning 1990 LP, Room to Roam. The mess of Dream Harder (1993) can return to the mists of memories, as well. Even the studio releases from this current decade don’t much factor into the sound of Book of Lightning. 2000’s A Rock in the Weary Land features some good tunes that got buried under tightly compressed alt-rock guitars (one too many listens to OK Computer in the mixing booth?). And 2003’s Universal Hall was tepid and overly reverent.
The one record I left out is 1988’s wonderful Fisherman’s Blues. Although that album is often more acoustically arranged than Book of Lightning, the underlying feel is quite similar. Not coincidentally, several of the tunes from the new album were first born during the writing for Fisherman’s Blues. Derived from lyrical and musical scraps taken from pages of Scott’s songbook, words were added and chord progressions fleshed out. Thus a bridge to a successful era of the band’s past was built. Hey, what a smart idea.
Even without these actual ties to a prior release, and despite the sonic differences across their catalog, a Waterboys album always sounds something like a Waterboys album. The lone factor that unites them all is, of course, the voice of Mike Scott, the Scottish poet-rocker whose ragged tone refines the nasal drawl of Bob Dylan and mellows the whiskey scratch of Paul Westerberg. Fiddler Steve Wickham also adds to the continuity of the band’s sound, as does long-time keyboardist Richard Naiff. The rest is just rock and roll.
On Book of Lightning, this is more true than ever before. These tracks were recorded live in the studio, and they crackle with the vibrant energy that can only be created by musicians playing together. For those who ate up the group’s 2005 concert album, Karma to Burn, you know whereof I speak. This band is at its best when the clutter of studio technology is left behind.
The songs are what really matter, though, and this new album boasts its share of greats. Opening track and first single “The Crash of Angel Wings” has the loose and crunchy strut of the Rolling Stones, but the melodic movement is all Byrds-like prettiness. Evident right away is Scott’s gift for crafting lyrics that feel as if they wrote themselves. Here’s the album’s first couplet: “Here she comes like rumbling drums / Swinging her skirts and talking in spurts”. Competition for the disc’s top track comes from “Nobody’s Baby Anymore”. Riding on the sweetly whining cry of an E-bowed electric guitar and a steadily thumping rhythm, Scott longs for when he was “cherished, treasured as a prize”, claiming, “Guardian angels flew upside my head / Peacocks danced behind my eyes”. What makes the song, though, is the sequence of chords that lies within the exquisite pocket of tension between the words “nobody’s baby” and (laaaaaaaaa-la-la-laaaa-laaaa) “anymore”. Those four seconds alone justify the price of the CD.
But wait, that’s not all. You also get the Hammond organ-flavored “She Tried to Hold Me”. Scott is on top of his game here, mixing the achingly beautiful kind of tune that the Band would’ve been happy to perform with lyrics that are slyly funny in the brilliant stupidity of their rhymes: “She told me I was unrealistic / And then she went ballistic / In her powder blue pajamas / Me some flotsam in her drama”, and “She lingered like uranium / Like a demon in my cranium”. He leaves just enough space before the last word in each line for the listener to guess which word is coming next. It’s another small thrill on a disc that offers many.
Book of Lightning isn’t all fun and games, though. “Sustain”, with its elegiac piano part, is a quiet stunner, co-written and recorded with Vancouver band Great Aunt Ida. The following song (originally a Fisherman’s Blues outtake with an E-Street Band feel), “You in the Sky”, perfectly bridges the somber mood of “Sustain” with the more wide-open feel of the rest of the album. Even on the next-to-the-last cut (usually reserved for filler), Scott and company keep the quality level high with “Everyone Takes a Tumble”, a deceptively sunny-sounding song of revenge: “There’s vengeance in my belly / Slime on both my shoes / And everything bad that you ever heard / About little old me is true”.
Closer “The Man with the Wind at His Heels” is a bit of a throwaway. A couple of songs from earlier in the record don’t quite hit the mark, either. I really want to like “Love Will Shoot You Down”, but its groove is a little sour. “Strange Arrangement” is pretty, but not compelling. “It’s Gonna Rain” is, well, pretty darn good — nothing more, and nothing less. A solid mid-album, mid-tempo, mid-rockin’ ditty, it deserves neither praise nor scorn.
As a whole, Book of Lightning deserves much praise. It’s only with some effort that I’m able to objectively parse out the underwhelming moments. The highlights easily overshadow the few songs that aren’t great. Moreover, this album easily outshines any other studio effort from the Waterboys since their 1980s heyday. We shouldn’t even speculate about what Mike Scott will bring us next. For now, however, the Waterboys are back on track.