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In summer 2020, Mike Scott was looking ahead.
Good Luck, Seeker, the 14th album from The Waterboys, was about to be released. It was, the restlessly creative Scottish musician mused, the end of an era: after Out Of All This Blue (2017) and Where the Action Is (2019), this was a final chapter of sorts. All three were soul-influenced records, recorded in a five-year stream of creaitivity broken only by touring, heavy on grooves, segues, sound effects and mashups. Hence his feeling that “this was a particular threesome of albums. The next one will be quite different. It’s written already.”
Eighteen months on, here we are, with that 15th album ready to go. Except it’s not the 15th album Scott had in mind. That particular set of songs is indeed written; recorded too, and awaiting its time. But for now it's been overtaken by events, inspiration and another creative path.
Presenting All Souls Hill – an album Scott describes as “a unique Waterboys record because of the degree of collaboration”. The core of the nine-song album is six written with Manchester-based producer/writer Simon Dine. And the collaborative spirit also stretches backwards to the 1948 country-folk standard Passing Through, reborn with freshly written verses by Scott as a nine-minute gospel epic.
The collaborative spirit reaches outwards, too, to Robbie Robertson and his song Once Were Brothers. And it touches the talents in Scott’s own band, with Waterboys keyboard player James Hallawell supplying music for the elegiac Hollywood Blues – the lyrics for which were inspired by, as Scott describes, “Dennis Hopper’s long bacchanalia in the American southwest in the '70s”.
As he puts it himself, all this presents an "unusual degree of collaboration. Usually when I make a record, I've written the songs and play them on guitar or piano. But with a lot of these, I don’t even know the chords yet!” he says cheerfully. For a much-loved artist currently in the 40th anniversary phase of his career, this was an unfamiliar feeling. But that’s the thrill. Being out of his comfort zone is what Scott was looking for.
“I've written songs for a long time, and sometimes I get tired of my chord sequences, my own types of rhythms, and like to do something different. Working with Simon," enthuses the Dublin-based singer, "pushed me into different places to write things I wouldn't otherwise have been able to do.”
To be fair, those “chord sequences, my own types of rhythms” have long served Scott well. Having cut his teeth on the post-punk scene he launched The Waterboys in 1983 with ‘A Girl Called Johnny’, one of the all-time great first singles. It was followed by their self-titled debut album then in swift annual succession A Pagan Place and This Is The Sea.
The latter, released in 1985, remains that rare thing: a set of songs genuinely deserving the overused accolade of Classic Album. This Is The Sea is a poetic, spiritual, transporting, rousing masterclass. When a record contains ‘The Whole of the Moon’, an earth-shaking, sky-scraping, star-kissing anthem as resonant today as it was then – not least in myriad TV and film placements – how could it be anything other than classic?
It made The Waterboys a huge band internationally, and through a dozen subsequent albums the now Dublin-based Scott has kept on keepin’ on, the visionary constant as his band of travelling musical brothers and sisters has morphed around him, always intent on exploring a fresh direction and cresting the next peak, whether it be the blending of rock and celtic styles on Fisherman's Blues (1988), the setting of Ireland's national poet to music on An Appointment With Mr Yeats (2011), or the exploration of southern rock and soul on Modern Bues (2015).
Which brings us to the new peak: All Souls Hill.
The musical starting point came in spring 2021. Dine sent Scott a zipfile of “10 or 20 instrumentals he'd made. He said if any suggested a melody or an idea, I could try working on them.”
One instantly caught Scott’s ear. Here We Go Again is a rousing singalong whose freshness belies the lyrical subject matter. “It's the idea we’re living through a communal Groundhog Day. We’re all looking at the news headlines but nobody seems to learn the lessons. As a culture we keep making the same mistakes. It’s a wry look at humans not being so smart – and yet I have good fun being one.
“And that,” he adds, “was the track that started this album. I heard the chorus melody in my head, worked on it a few days, sent it back to Simon, he added some ideas, and we got it finished super-fast. I said: what next? He said: more! And we ended up doing six tracks together as back and forth collaborations.”
Another of those is The Liar. Complete with video artwork by satirist Cold War Steve (“he captures reality in a powerfully grotesque way”), it’s a scorching takedown of the former guy, D. Trump. The riffs are angry, the words angrier still (“Lord Haw-haw in his studio scowled, conspiracy crazies raved and howled”) and the sampled sounds of a mob are angriest of all – Dine took them from the 6th January storming of the Capitol.
All Souls Hill itself, which opens the album, is a swirling sub-three-minute rock’n’roll symphony radiating dread and fear. Scott’s grasp of politicised poetry is on display as he describes "a broken black time in the wreck of the world where love was a crime, a monstrous lie told by a charlatan choir and a man on fire". Is that Trump again? “Could be,” he answers. “The man on fire is like the line in Yeats’ 'The Second Coming': 'the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity'. The liar, unfortunately, is the man who's inspired, the one who's on fire."
Other songs written with Dine, include galloping piano banger Blackberry Girl and the plangent, electronic ballad ‘The Southern Moon'.
“I have a computer file with old lines of lyrics and ideas", Scott explains. "Some go back 10, 20, even 30 years. The title Blackberry Girl came from that, and the beginnings of The Southern Moon. Simon sent me a particularly beautiful tune and I went through my file of lyrics, running the tune in my head while reading the words to see if any phrasing matched, or if any lyrics chimed with its feeling. And several lines of what became The Southern Moon jumped out.”
Scott’s past is present in other evocative ways. The spoken-word In My Dreams is a kaleidoscope of details from actual dreams Scott had. "The track as Simon sent it to me sounded like a dreamscape," he says, "so I went through my old dream diaries, from the days when I'd write down dreams on waking, and extracted a score of ideas and sorted them into a songshape. I included magical dreams - like when I can fly, or find a secret attic of forgotten things - plus awkward ones like when I turn up to play a show and there's no gear." The track also features dream cameos of other musicians: “my band members, old and new”, "Amy Winehouse, still alive", "Iggy Pop, like an old sly dragon".
Musical legend Robbie Robertson figures too. Scott covers the Canadian’s 2019 song Once Were Brothers, which lent its name to the recent Band documentary. “It's rewritten in part by me, with Robbie's permission, which was unexpected and incredibly gracious of him. Once Were Brothers is a most beautiful song, yet I thought: ‘I wish he'd said more.’ I found myself writing extra lyrics for it."
We might call it empathetic iconoclasm. And there’s more on Passing Through which, elevated by a gospel choir, closes the album. Scott has added his own verses to the post-War country-folk standard, referencing, amongst others, George Floyd.
“I heard the song many years ago,” he begins. “I loved the chorus, but only really liked the first verse, about Adam in the garden. So I wrote new verses about Jesus, Shakespeare, Sitting Bull, Martin Luther King, right up to the present day. The idea behind Passing Through is so universal, you could write any number of verses to it."
It all speaks to a truth that Scott holds self-evident: far from being sacrosanct, songs are mutable, living, breathing things. They have to be.
“Absolutely,” he affirms. “I'm not scared of changing someone's lyrics. If I sing a Dylan song and want to change it, I do. And honestly, I like when people change my songs. When someone covers a Waterboys number, I like that they do it their own way and re-envisage it. Songs need to be alive.”
In Mike Scott’s hands, from the peak of All Souls Hill to the far horizon of a remarkable writing and recording career, they always will be: raucously, rowdily, reassuringly alive.