On August 21, The Waterboys will release Good Luck, Seeker, their fourteenth album (sixteenth if you count Mike Scott’s solo branded records from the 90s). When it comes to The Waterboys, I’m a relative newbie. My band played “Fisherman’s Blues,” of course. But until about a year ago, I didn’t know the ethic of the band or its leader. After seeing them play live in San Diego when a friend called at the last minute and asked me to go, I became a fan. After hearing Mike Scott from the stage refer to the Orange Defiler, reading some of his writing, and following him on Twitter, I became a believer.
This record is something of a socially-distanced affair. Unlike “the old days,” Scott explains, when he’d “write a song, book a studio and assemble musicians to play,” he assembled proto-versions of the tracks in his Dublin home studio. For some, this might seem like “a very dry way of working.” But for Scott, it was a chance to be absorbed by the place where he conjures the “magic.” “I’m like a kid in a toy shop,” Scott explains, “having fun all the time. This album was almost accidental. I was just making music, and suddenly realized I’d made an album.”
For this record, Scott sent the tracks back and forth among the band members, inviting each to add their bits in their own home studios. Steve Wickham’s signature violin; Brother Paul Brown’s soulful organ, and Scott’s guitars form the heart of Good Luck, Seeker, as they did on last year’s Where The Action Is and 2017’s Out of All This Blue, a trio of albums that Scott sees as being of a piece. (Spoiler alert – he reports that the next record, which he’s already written, will be different. I’m both happy and sad about that.) And last, but certainly not least, Ralph Salmins brings life to the beats that make Good Luck, Seeker the powerful record that it is.
The opening track, “The Soul Singer” launches a joyfulness of sound that mere mortals can’t resist. It comes out of the box with a Hungry-Heart drum intro and a blessed horn line that would make Little Steven proud. The who-done-it lyric makes you smile and think, at the same time. Who is this soul singer snarling “at all the cats, who’ve ripped him off?” Scott says he’ll never tell, “but there are clues in the lyrics.” No kidding. There’s speculation on the interwebs that it’s Van. But could it be that obvious? I prefer to think that it’s not one man, or women, and to revel in imagining that, if I listen closely enough, I just might glimpse “the sweet golden music that lives in his heart.”
“You’ve Got to Kiss a Frog or Two” makes clear that this album – side one anyway, and Mike acknowledges he still thinks about albums that way – pays homage to the greatest musical era, for me. I know that perhaps no one else shares this view. But I discovered AM radio in 1970 and FM a few years later. That era is my foundation. Sure, I now realize that it wasn’t the 60s. Between American Pie and standing Shattered in the Darkness on the Edge of Town, though, there was a soulful sound that never came before or after. “Frog’s” groove takes me back to The Free Movement’s “I’ve Found Someone of My Own.” “She stretched her hand out through the glass,” Scott sings, “to touch the cold years as they passed.” The combination of spoken word and singing is a relic of my era. I like to think this one might reflect Mike’s love for his wife and the realization that the old kissing-the-frog tale isn’t really about a magic spell placed by an evil witch that any old girl can release. It’s a magic between two people that brings out what’s royal in each other.
One of my favorite things about the Waterboys is that they understand the pure exhilaration that can flow from the right cover done right. “Low Down in the Broom” is yet another perfect choice. This one is a Scottish folk song that Scott acknowledges “connects with the early Waterboys’ sound, keeping faith with long term fans, but is driven forward by a spirit of experimentation that is vital in record making.” For me there’s a destructiveness in “Broom” that plays off “Frog’s” sincerity and grabs me by the heart.
Why don’t people write songs about other people anymore? Admittedly, it was often guys writing about girls that they probably barely knew. OK, that’s what I did. But some of those songs were great – Caroline No, for example – and what better subject to write about than an honest to goodness individual human being. Scott’s memoir about Mick Jones was a highlight of Where the Action Is. “Dennis Hopper” will surely be compared to “London Mick.” But it hits me more as a straight fan song, less of an insider song. It’s an incredible mashup of lyrical references to everything Hopper – I keep listening to hear, or trying to imagine, a line about Hoosiers but no luck yet – and music that sounds like a spectrograph of Hopper’s mind. Is that the mystic Sir George Trevelyan saying “Dennis Hopper” a couple of times near the end? Oh wait, how about this — “came back from the bottom of the dropper, had the boys run the picket fence, Dennis Hopper.”
“Freak Street” is another trigger for my 70s obsession. It brings me back to one of those extended mixes of “Miss You,” with just a touch of Cheech and Chong.
“Sticky Fingers” takes the Stones’ great album title from – guess when, go ahead, I’m not going to tell you – and puts some music to it. Scott hints that he might do more of these. I’m hoping for “Goat’s Head Soup.” And the sequencing makes me think I might not be wrong about “Freak Street.”
As I was writing this review, I wrote “if Brother Paul never played another lick, he could die happy with what he played on ‘Why Should I Love You.’” But then I realized that he might not have played it! Mike recorded this Kate Bush/Prince cover as a solo project back in the 90s. For this version, he kept some of the original tracks. Backing out the piano and highlighting the organ in the intro is brilliant, even if some other guy played the lick. Brother Paul, of course, has plenty of others I’d die for. The new vocal is another almost spoken word/singing thing that takes me back to you-know-when. In this memory, I’m trying to get a perfect recording of the Chi-lites “Have You Seen Her” with my microphone hanging off the transiter radio handle – close as I could get it to the speaker – jealous of my cousin who got the whole intro. The DJ kept talking over it whenever I recorded. “I see her face everywhere I go” . . . “there’s just something about you.” And then 3:58. What happens there makes everything worth it. Those guitars of truth panned wide, Salmins drums down the middle. – Oh shit, is it Salmins? – Whatever, some version of The Waterboys give us over a minute of extended solo that’s worth the price of admission (and then some). I can’t wait to hear how they do this live.
To this point, Good Luck, Seeker, could be side 3 of Where the Action Is. It measures up really well to that extraordinary record. The “Golden Work” starts off something different. Lots of bass guitar and a distorted vocal. It makes me think in an odd way of “Coming Up,” and all those people who said, “I like the B side with Paul’s real voice.” Scott recognizes that this one comes from inspiration that is “an acquired taste.”
“My Wanderings in the Weary Land” is nearly seven minutes of spoken-word-guitar heaven. Mike Scott is great at this sort of thing. I know what you’re thinking. “It’s spoken word, hell, anybody can do that.” No, they can’t. The immediacy, the rhythm, the punctuation. “Running that tunnel took years and what years they were . . . I heard the great unspoken.” The story behind this is epic. A re-recorded demo of “The Return of Jimi Hendrix” with Scott’s liner notes from “A Rock in a Weary Land.” “They say that for every step you take spiritually, you have to live several years of tough stuff to earn it,” Scott offers. “So, this is an account in figurative, metaphorical language of some of my darker steps. But I hope I’ve written it in a sufficiently universal sense that people can interpret it through their own experiences. That’s always the aim of a song.” It works for me, bringing me back to “Ladbroke Grove Symphony” from Where the Action Is. Not necessarily my own experiences, but what I wish they might have been. To think, “I could be one of them” is a thought we’ve all had, for better or for worse.
“Postcard From The Celtic Dreamtime” is another spoken masterpiece that brings to mind Scott’s performance on “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” from Where the Action Is and Van’s “On Hyndford Street” and “Coney Island.” Van says he’s not about nostalgia, but songs like these say otherwise. Not that that’s a bad thing. But Scott seems to have found a way to make it something other than that. “The ever-passing present blends with the landscape . . . I feel it beat against my skin . . . as I walk through it, as I breath it, as I become it.” The soul singer – probably not, but maybe – should take notes.
The title track gives us a full dose of Sir George Trevelyan reading from British occultist Dion Fortune’s book, including a little advertisement for courses on the Western Esoteric Tradition complete with the London address of the school. I’m tempted to say I’d pay to hear Mike Scott read the phone book. But then, I remember, it’s Sir George and phone books don’t exist anymore. And this isn’t all fun and games, trust me.
The Waterboys take “Beauty in Repetition” from American psychologist and philosopher William James, author of The Varieties of Religious Experience. Scott describes it as “a helpful passage, about how repeating the more mundane things in life frees our minds for higher purpose. I’m a great adherent of that idea, subjugating the ordinary to free myself to think about the things I really care about, like songwriting and magic.”
“Everchanging” is a first cousin of “Weary Land” on which, this time, I’m pretty sure it is Brother Paul who shines.
“The Land of Sunset” is a fitting end to this most philosophic of album sides featuring Scott’s spoken poem built around an organ instrumental by Irish musician Peader O Riada.
You can buy Good Luck, Seeker, including supercool signed lyric sheets on the band’s website.