On May 6, The Waterboys released All Souls Hill, the band’s fifteenth album (seventeenth if you count Mike Scott’s solo branded records from the 90s). It’s fabulous. Scott may stand alone among rockers of a certain age in his ability to write songs that sound fresh, vital, and dear I say, age appropriate. Those of his peers who haven’t disappeared tend to oscillate between songs evoking bad nostalgia and that morose all-my-comrades-are-dead sort of thing. As someone of Scott’s generation who still seeks out a sense of wonder, I can’t thank this guy enough.
If you haven’t been paying attention, you may have missed that we are in something of a Golden Age for The Waterboys. Beginning with 2015’s Modern Blues, the band has released a series of dynamite albums exploring rock, soul, funk, hip-hop, and a surprisingly large selection of spoken-word numbers. These albums may have gone under the radar of fans of band’s 1980’s work – in particular Fisherman’s Blues – because of the relative lack of traditional Irish music. But there’s some of that too. Out of All This Blue (2017), and particularly, Where the Action Is (2019), and Good Luck, Seeker (2020) are as good, if not better, than anything the band did in the 1980s.
On All Souls Hill, Mike Scott wears a lot of hats. Writing, producing, singing, playing many instruments and even mixing. An array of others contribute to various songs, including Simon Dine, Ian McNabb, Ralph Salmins, James Hallawell, Aongus Ralston, Pee Wee Ellis, Greg Morrow, Mike Brignardello, Rob D Cureton, Jason Eskridge, Niki Conley, Kiley Phillips and I’m pretty sure Steve Wickham’s on one of the bonus songs.
At first, I had my doubts about All Souls Hill. Scott talked about how it would be a departure from the recent Waterboys’ albums. Given that I loved those, how would I take to a change? And the pre-release singles weren’t encouraging. Both “The Liar” and “Here We Go Again” have what strikes me as a mechanical feel. A use of the high hat combined with keyboard sounds that projects the hum and rumble of machinery in a factory. It’s interesting, but doesn’t warm my heart the way the best Waterboys’ work does.
The subject matter of “The Liar” also didn’t sit well. Mike Scott is a student American history and politics. He knows it better than most of us, and I virtually always agree with him. “The Liar” shows off that facility, and I agree with the sentiment. It’s just too on-the-nose. I much prefer the bonus 7” track “Painting America White,” which makes a similar point a bit less bluntly.
The title track and “The Southern Moon” continue the mechanical theme. So, for me, the album takes off with the fourth song, “Blackberry Girl.” It explodes from the speakers with a rock, soul, hip-hop mixture that’s part “Cinnamon Girl,” part “Miss You,” and two parts Dylan if he ever pulled off an arrangement like this. And then it stops just as abruptly.
“Hollywood Blues” begins with a dose of Scott’s amazing spoken word style that morphs into a singing chorus. It’s a call-the-singer’s-bullshit song with an amazing set of clever, evocative lyrics. The partner who the singer addresses knows him better than he knows himself, all of the hims, evoking Dylan’s famous response when the director of a movie he was acting in told Bob to “just be yourself,” and Dylan responded with the question, “which one?”
“In My Dreams” is a classic Mike Scott spoken-word piece that reveals what I believe makes him so special. He dreamed last night that his “young self broke through and made all” his choices. And that, my friends, makes all the difference.
In “Once Were Brothers,” Scott re-writes Robbie Robertson’s lyrics! This, as we say in SoCal, takes cajones, big ones. Springsteen once did it with Tom Wait’s “Jersey Girl.” But where Springsteen created a different, perhaps equally good version, Scott improves on Robertson’s song in virtually every imaginable way, including adding the guitar solo that Robbie should have played. The Waterboys may be the best cover band – at least with respect to recorded covers – since the Beatles circa 1964. Now, if the Smithereens or the E-Street Band ever release some of the covers they’ve done over the years, The Waterboys might have some competition! In addition to “Once Were Brothers,” All Souls Hill includes a bonus 7 inch, including another cover that I will not give away except to say that you will ask yourself “Am I really thinking that this is better than the original?”
“Passing Through,” is a nine-minute rock spiritual that may be the best example of the genre since Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirt in the Sky.” Scott is a student of such things, writing about this under-appreciated sub-genre and listing dozens of songs in the category. (I tried to find his essay and list for this review, but couldn’t. If you can, please add it to the comments.) Being a good student in this case has led to brilliant execution as the song recounts all of human history, highlighting that our most fulfilling moment is the gladness that comes from crossing each other’s paths.
The Waterboys never seem to rest these days. Mike Scott recently released The Magnificent Seven, a boxed set highlighting the band at the height of its Irish music period in the late-1980s and early-1990s. In the works are sets expanding on Scott’s efforts to put music to Yates’s poetry and a retrospective of the band’s breakthrough, This is the Sea, as well as more brand new music. Stay tuned.
You can buy All Souls Hill, including supercool special editions and a bonus 7-inch that’s “to die for”on the band’s website. Mike Scott also runs an amazing Patreon page where he posts lots of rare or totally unavailable stuff for only, wait for it, 5 pounds sterling per month.
Tennessee peeps: please keep a lookout for Mike Scott’s stolen equipment and instruments:
“Stolen gear, taken from Waterboys lockup at Devon Storage, Madison, Tn sometime last 6 mths: my Taylor 12str, Taylor mini 6 str, Guild 6 str, Aer amp and 1992 Martin Shenandoah 6 str, serial number 508691. Any help gratefully received. I would like them back. #TheWaterboys”