Mike Scott is more of a poet than a songwriter, yet within his limitations he weaves trances so spellbinding that he has few peers among his musical contemporaries. Maybe Van Morrison, who finds transcendence in quiet contemplation, or Simple Minds, who mine the subconscious for dizzying moments of enlightenment, come close. But unlike them, Scott the writer, voice and main musician in the Waterboys pursues the ecstatic union of flesh and spirit at a full gallop. At his best "The Whole of the Moon" and "Medicine Bow" you can almost feel him leave the ground and take flight. His voice rises to a feverish pitch, chafing with an excitement that drives him to the brink of holy-roller atonality, and the very thing that inhibits him the sledgehammer repetitiveness of his music is turned to advantage, accumulating an almost hypnotic power.
"Medicine Bow" evokes, with rollicking, headlong music and images of wind and storm, a wild night of the soul. But "The Whole of the Moon" is the album's grandest achievement, exploring the gulf between desire and realization and apotheosizing a martyr to sanity ("You stretched for the stars and you know how it feels to reach too high ... too far ... too soon").
Scott is less skilled at inventing melodies and sufficiently varying tempos. For these reasons, as well as for the dogmatic tenor of his lyrics, such songs as "Old England," "The Pan Within" and "Trumpets" are more earthbound than heaven sent. And for a visionary, he's still not above haranguing a vexatious fellow traveler, as evidenced in the corrosive huffing of "Don't Bang the Drum" and "Be My Enemy." But part of the fascination of this album is the struggle between man and spirit, neatly summed up in a wisp of a song called "Spirit": "Man crawls/Spirit flies/Spirit lives when man dies."
At the end, there is peace in the vastness of "This Is the Sea." This is big music: as broad and bottomless as the ocean, with masses of guitars and the promise of redemption in the image (borrowed from gospel music) of a train a-coming. After the mental rigors of the preceding eight songs, "This Is the Sea" blesses the odyssey with the promise of calmer waters. (RS 461)
(Posted: Nov 21, 1985)
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