- Artist: The Waterboys
- Title: This is the Sea
- Released: 1985
- Format: Original Vinyl + 2004 Remastered CD
- Genre: Alternative Rock
- Beverage of Choice: Hendricks Gin and Tonic
Smack-dab in the middle of a decade often derided as musically bereft of value, among the Howard Jones, Kenny G, Michael Bolton, Falco and David Hasselhoff offerings, there was some great music to be heard. A surprising mix of old and new talent released classic albums in 1985 (Tears for Fears’ “Songs From the Big Chair”, Eurythmics’ “Be Yourself Tonight”, Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” and Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love” come to mind) and this masterclass in sonic layering should be numbered among them.
The Waterboys, founded by (and really inseparable from) Mike Scott had released two albums (“The Waterboys” – 1983 and “A Pagan Place” – 1984) to some critical acclaim but not a huge amount of public success. I’d bought both albums on vinyl as they were released and found them to be musically interesting, soulful and uplifting but somewhat inconsistent in tone and pacing. This album changed all of that; the last hurrah of Scott’s ‘Big Music’ phase, “This is the Sea” is grand in scope and elegiac in content, heralding not only a change in direction for the band but also their country, relationships and souls.
Mike Scott’s artistic control over the project results in an aural landscape that is immediately recognizable and distinctive (somewhat like Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’). Layer upon layer of instrument, vocals and background create a dense tapestry upon which to weave threads of lyrical silver and gold; ‘poetic’ is often over-used when it comes to popular art but there is no other description for this work. Rich symbolism (“The Whole of the Moon“), spiritual introspection (“Spirit“) and political comment (“Old England“) characterizes this record’s great beauty and connects directly to my soul.
This is a piano-driven set with a wide variety of brass, strings, percussion and electronic instruments making up the sonic layers, leaving very few spaces in the music. It all works together, bringing Scott’s vocals into relief against the backdrop of sound. To my ears, he sometimes sounds like Bono, high register ‘whoo-hoo’s and a Celtic intonation here and there (although Scott is, well, Scots, and Bono is from Ireland). Just listening to the trumpet intro to the album on “Don’t Bang the Drum” lifts my mood and makes me smile now, knowing the joy and satisfaction to come.
A quick note on the recordings: my original 35 year old vinyl has held up pretty well (with the inevitable pops and crackles) but I recommend the CD Remaster as the mix has been clarified and the aural landscape better painted and navigated for the listener. Playing through a set of large speakers lets one experience the full grand scale of the music with a high and wide sound stage but listening through good headphones will provide the nuance and subtle background shading and changes to full effect. Try both!
There are a number of small flourishes and subtle touches that enliven the songs and make them even more satisfying (listen closely to the fills on “The Whole of the Moon”) and Scott’s passionate vocals are doubled and backed to create a choir-like effect; trumpets ring and cascade to a background of “la la la’s” that caress the ear and then rise through the mix. The overall effect is joyful and uplifting.
I defy you to listen to “Trumpets” without being moved by lyrics and music. A simple driving rhythm of piano and free-flowing sax with layers of synth (I’m guessing xylophone patch) and vocal layers create a wonderful connection to the singer and his emotions. I would give a lot to be able to write poetry (and music) that resonate with so much warmth, directness and depth of feeling.
Listen for all the small gifts and surprises contained in this album, you won’t regret the time spent, I promise you.
“And to be with you
Is to find myself in the best of dreams”.