Thirty-five years ago this month, The Waterboys released the extraordinary album This is the Sea. It was the band’s third album – the make or break point for all the great ones, right – and boy did they make it. This is the Sea culminated Mike Scott’s “Big Music” period, a unique style featuring widely spaced 12-string guitars, piano, and lots of saxophone.
Scott, who played guitars and piano, made most of This is the Sea with his then-bandmates Anthony Thistlewaite on sax and mandolin and Karl Wallinger on keys. Wallinger, who would go on to form World Party, also provided Scott access to his studio at which much of the album was demoed. In 2011, those piano demos would be released on an album called “In a Special Place.” Roddy Lorimer added trumpet, and Kevin Wilkinson and Chris Whitten share the drums. Steve Wickham, who has now been a Waterboy longer than anyone except Mike Scott, joined in at the very end, playing fiddle on “The Pan Within.” Despite being a relatively short album with just 9 songs, the boys recorded it in three distinct phases with some songs produced by Scott and John Brand; others with Mick Glossop; and some – most notably “The Whole of the Moon” – by Scott himself.
Lynn Goldsmith took the iconic cover shot, which is a story in itself. The session took place in Scott’s apartment with him at the peak of his beauty dressed to the nines. Surely, they intended to use a picture of his face. But when Scott bent his head down to place a feather in his breast pocket, Goldsmith kept shooting and, immediately, she told him “there’s your cover” – a shot in which his face couldn’t be seen!
Side 1 of This is the Sea shimmers with delights so precious that it is hard to imagine a more satisfying album side. These songs cavalcade out of the band with a second-person directness that hadn’t been seen since sides 2 and 3 of Blonde on Blonde. And Dylan’s repeating metaphor of the hopeless romantic, brilliant as it was, doesn’t really serve as an inspiration for Mike Scott’s progressive investigation of human spirit from accusatory rage to inner healing. Scott would go on to write better songs. But we would never again be so astonished by his talent.
“Don’t Bang the Drum” opens the album with a majestic fanfare announcing that what will come is not to be taken lightly. It’s an epic gone-too-far number with an anger that will be reprised less viciously and more instructively on the album’s other bookend This is Sea, the song.
“The Whole of the Moon” is, of course, breathtaking. A casual listener might wonder, why not open the album with this song? Well, Scott couldn’t do that. He’s often repeated that he didn’t choose the 9 songs that comprise This is the Sea out of all the songs he’d written. They chose themselves. He can be credited (or blamed) only for faithfully following their instructions. As far as I know, he’s never said that they chose their own order. But at least with respect to side one, it is pretty clear that they did.
“The Whole of the Moon” is often defined, wrongly I think, by its amazing repeating couplet “I saw the crescent, you saw the whole of the moon” and the litany of examples in which the singer found his vision and experience limited compared to subject’s. But Moon is not a worship song. The visionary subject is not perfection. She (or he) is a tragic figure who through no choice of her own experienced life too fully –
You were there in the turnstiles, with the wind at your heels.
You stretched for the stars and you know how it feels to reach too high
Too far. Too soon. You saw the whole of the moon.
“Wide oceans full of tears” is the key to this lyric. The subject is spirit. But spiritual vision, however vivid, is not worldly happiness. Interestingly, this part of the song was not written at the time Scott recorded the piano demos. And Moon ended up as one of the final songs recorded for “This is the Sea.”
The next phase of understanding comes with my favorite song on the album and sometimes my favorite of all time. Spirit is a sub-two-minute meditation on contrast between man and spirit. “Man seems. Spirit is. Man dreams. The spirit lives.” What spirit is, to be sure, man can be. But should he?
“Man surrenders. Spirit won’t.” But as we take the final step toward healing and fulfillment in “The Pan Within,” we learn that “all you have to do is surrender.” Just as he began writing “This is the Sea,” Scott famously purchased at a wiccan store in New York City two black books intended for potions and spells. He used them to assemble lyrics, notes, and instructions for the songs recorded during the “This is the Sea” sessions.
The page on “The Pan Within” is quite revealing. There, he has sketched out a version of the song built around the idea that the subject didn’t need to do anything. No need to talk, no need to be strong or tender, “all you got to do is surrender.” In this form, the surrender lyric is tied to a meditative process, searching for one’s own pan. I don’t see any connection there to the reference to surrender in Spirit.
But “The Pan Within” final lyric changed the role of the surrender lyric dramatically. Instead of serving as a path to meditative discovery, it became something more universal that for me ties back to the surrender referenced in Spirit.
“The stars are alive. And nights like these. Were born to be. Sanctified by you and me. Lovers thieves, fools and pretenders. And all we gotta do is surrender.” To whom, though? . . . Not to some enemy or to something inevitable. But to ourselves. That’s the key that I find in “This is the Sea.”
Side 2 bursts out of the gate like it was born to run with the rollicking “Medicine Bow.” Old England laments the willful blindness to the decay of the times, the only song here that doesn’t seem timeless.
“Be My Enemy” is the best song Bob Dylan didn’t write, but in a parallel universe, he surely could have. Returning to the second person, it’s a subterranean homesickness of a song recognizing that our needs go beyond friends. Interestingly, the band used it when trying out drummers because it put them to the test.
“Trumpets” was the first song written for the album and its only reference to romance. It includes a wonderful saxophone performance by Thistlewait. But it wouldn’t have been my choice for this slot. I can’t blame Mike. He was just obeying instructions that I understand could not be disobeyed. And while I don’t necessarily agree with the choice, I have come to understand.
Then, it all comes to the end with a coming of age song that synthesizes the anger and thrust of “Don’t Bang the Drum” and “Be My Enemy” with love and understanding of “Whole of the Moon” and “The Pan Within.” Once upon a time, you perceived a calmness in life. Didn’t you? A place where you seemed to fit. Where you had control. But that’s the world of man, not spirit. “That was the River.” As we approach spirit, however, tentatively, we lose control and must try our best to hang on. “This is the sea.” How does it feel?
Much to my chagrin, as I repeat every chance I get, I came to The Waterboys late in life through their more recent albums. That’s not what I regret, though. I spent my youth searching for a musical soul mate, however distant. Someone who could be the figurative big brother that I never had, if only through his words and music. The best we had then was Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. They were locals for a Jersey boy like me, which was good. But they were a generation ahead. They weren’t us. Mike Scott would have been, and I so regret not finding him then. Still, I’m all the happier for it now.
Which leads to this. Being unfamiliar with the early Waterboys, I started listening to This is the Sea on Spotify, which runs the album into a second disc of extras included on the 2002 remastered release. I knew this, of course. But somehow, I’d convinced myself on my first few listens that the two songs that start the bonus disc – “Beverly Penn” and “Sleek White Schooner” – were actually part of the original album. Sacrilege I now admit. At the time, though, somehow, I’d fooled myself into believing it. These two songs are extraordinary delights of sound and sensation. Not quite “Fire” and “Because the Night,” but pretty close.
And I especially like this analogy because “Beverly Penn” – right down to the extended saxophone note through which Thistlewait channels Clarence Clemons playing live – evokes Springsteen’s “Bobby Jean” but with the person gloriously changed from the first to the third person. To say that I love this song is to understate my feelings. I can’t understand how Thistlewaite could have let Scott live after he left his performance on this song off the album!
The song’s characters – drawn from Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tail – evoke the most precious longing one can experience in life.
“Four o’clock on a marble morning, Water pouring on her skin.
In fever her life bursts open. And a hurricane blows in.
When high from the dreams of this creature, a thief on a horse descends.
It was dawn and it was December. And Peter Lake loved Beverly Penn.”
When the singer longs for that feeling himself, it breaks my heart open. I love the thought of that feeling so. But now, I have to acknowledge that that is not what “This is the Sea” is about. The songs were right, much as I might wish it were different, I can’t disagree.
You can buy Waterboys’ stuff of all sorts, though perhaps not This is the Sea, on the band’s website. If you really don’t have a copy of This is the Sea, your local record stores are your friends. And if – as is probably the case – you already have your copy, tap into a bunch of rare – and previously unseen or heard – songs and more from the “This is the Sea” era on The Waterboys’ Patreon page. It’s the best 10 pounds sterling you will ever spend, trust me. At least until the “This is the Sea” box set comes out in 2022.