All Souls Hill
3 out of 5 stars
It’s impossible to pigeonhole the music of Mike Scott… and that’s the way he wants it.
Through fourteen albums starting with his debut in 1983, Scott as the frontman, founder, and only constant member of his Waterboys, has regularly shifted musical gears. From the early anthemic work culminating in “The Whole of the Moon” to his Celtic/folk-inflected period best known through Fisherman’s Blues in 1988 and on to a more stripped down rock approach, Scott has purposely revised his vision with music that moves him, regardless of audience expectations. That’s the essence of most great artists from Dylan to Neil Young, Bjork, and others who consistently develop and enlarge their boundaries.
As anyone who has followed his twisty paths over decades knows, Scott loves his lyrics. That hasn’t changed on album number fifteen where each track is overflowing with words, some spoken/some sung. The auteur has plenty to say and isn’t shy about spewing out a constant stream of verses to make his points: all in his distinctive Scottish brogue and with a propulsive attitude leaving subtlety for others. Instead of crafting these tunes alone, he brings in Simon Dine (co-producer for Paul Weller), one of the few times Scott has used a collaborator for songwriting.
The result isn’t that different from the recent trilogy of Waterboys’ albums released from 2017 through 2020. Scott lays down looped beats, then recites over that bed. There isn’t much typical song verse-chorus-verse-bridge structure and the best way to absorb it is to read along as the singer unpacks his diffuse, often long-winded thoughts.
There is little wiggle room for interpretation on selections such as “The Liar.” In it, he narrates “The shiny Capitol gates were breached/when the liar was impeached.” The track then overdubs actual audio from the January 6 insurrection in case it wasn’t clear what the reference was.
Not everything is quite so obvious. On the lovely “Blackberry Girl” Scott creates a fairy tale that’s charming and sweet over a slow, steady percussive track enhanced with atmospheric guitar washes. He covers Robbie Robertson’s tender and melancholy “Once Were Brothers” with touching sincerity and an affectionate whispered rasp. It’s a beautiful ballad explaining The Band’s dissolution and also the title of a recent documentary about the legendary outfit.
The closing version of “Passing Through” gets lengthened to nearly 10 minutes as he adds his own lyrics to the folk tradition, taking it down a spirited, if over-extended, gospel path. For the appropriately titled “In My Dreams,” Scott narrates various oblique concepts of his nighttime visions (sometimes I step on a bus and notice myself barefoot) as various characters like David Bowie and Amy Winehouse float by.
It’s all interesting, at least once, and there is plenty to chew on in these nine tracks. How often anyone other than Scott fans will want to hear some of these again is unclear.
Those looking for another “The Whole of the Moon” will not find anything close to that Waterboys’ classic as Scott continues to explore different ways of expressing himself, evolving and mutating his career according to his own muse.