“This Is the Sea” at 30
Revisiting Mike Scott and The Waterboys’ 1985 masterpiece
There are some records which always send you to strange places. The other night, I got in the car, turned on The Waterboys’ “This Is the Sea” and found myself driving a train. Every time I hear that moody, broody, colourful scrapes of brass and atmospherics from the opening track “Don’t Bang the Drum”, I’m sent back to train trips from Dublin to Tipperary many years ago and listening to the album again and again on a battered Walkman. For me, it’s the sound of coming out a tunnel at Heuston Station and seeing blue sky above again. Dangerous thoughts to be having when you’re driving jagged Irish roads to be sure.
It’s 30 years this month since The Waterboys released that record, a collection of songs where the sounds Mike Scott had been hearing and perfecting and finessing and finetuning over two previous albums and increasingly euphoric live shows came to a crazy, dizzy peak. Swim that sea, climb that mountain, go that distance: “This Is the Sea” did all that and more. You can hear influences sneaking through the netting – some purple Prince poise here, some Dylan prose there and some punky bravado in the middle – but over and above those shades and shadows, you can hear Scott realising that this is the sound he’s craving. It’s not the big music, it’s mighty music.
I’ve written before about my Waterboys’ fanboy tendencies and much of that particular adventure (some might say affliction) began with this album. Listening now with the benefit of decades and distance, it still works its way under the skin, it still casts that kind of giddy spell which never gets old. Great music transcends time and toil and nostalgia – and “This Is the Sea” certainly does that.
Nostalgia is an interesting word to use in this regard. Music fans, by definition, are nostalgic beasts. We want our favourite albums and artists preserved for ever in the light of those golden days. We want The Waterboys of 1985/86 to be spinning around on stage playing like they’re on fire. The albums and the memories remind us of who we were, how we were, what we were. They’re a security blanket to hold close when the real world takes over and intrudes. Like that line in “This Is the Sea” goes, it’s a case of “maybe you’ve been suffering from a few too man plans that have gone wrong/And you’re trying to remember how fine your life used to be.”
Artists, though, move on and they move on quickly. Scott and co could easily have created more albums like “This Is the Sea”, more albums to take rock music along the same big music superhighway he’d just powered down like a boss. Instead, he went west to Ireland and Dublin and Connemara and fell for “Fisherman’s Blues”, a big music of a much different colour and shape and emotion. Other adventures ensued, other craftsmen joined the cast, other roads were taken. “This Is the Sea” faded into the rear-view mirror and disappeared behind a series of bends as other releases took precedence in their mind.
Yet for all that forward motion and new Waterboys’ releases, the album still exists and still exerts an influence. Over the years, I’ve heard its peculiar big-hearted voodoo pop up in the midst of various other Waterboys’ albums, while a whole slew of acts, from Arcade Fire to The War On Drugs, have traces of the album’s DNA in their genes. 30 years on from its release, it’s still a remarkable record to dig all over again. 30 years on, it’s still something very special.