To say The Waterboys’ latest album, An Appointment With Mr. Yeats, is a labour of love of sorts for Mike Scott would be something of an understatement. Scott’s obsession with W.B. Yeats is evident in a catalogue of lyrics peppered with direct or indirect nods to a burning, galloping Celtic mysticism that is typical of the poet’s earlier work. He has also remarked in interviews that this project has been on the boil for 20 years, so there is no doubting the passion and intent behind it. However, the very shape the project takes – an attempt to graft largely unaltered tranches of Yeats’ poetry to original Waterboys’ melodies – is one that leaves it at risk of sounding clumsy, overblown, or even pretentious. Yet, for the most part it succeeds and the points where it doesn’t quite convince can be chalked down as noble failures.
The poetry Scott selects for the project strikes a canny balance between the work of the young Celt who wrote ‘The Ballad of Wandering Aenghus’ (the side he seems to feel most comfortable with) and that of the disillusioned Romantic who wrote more politically engaged poems such as ‘September 1913’. Indeed, the selection would make a neat little anthology (further proof if it were needed of Scott’s understanding of the man’s work).
What quickly becomes clear listening to the album, is just how suited a lot of Yeats’ poetry is for this sort of treatment. Rather than sounding awkward, the lyrics mostly rattle along at a lovely rhythmic clip, demonstrating that Yeats must have been a bit of a proto rock and roller, or at least a man with a very musical ear. In fact, such is the latent musicality in the poetry you’d wonder whether Scott found the melodies to ‘write themselves’. It’s an interesting notion, and only a cursory listen to the thundering music of ‘The Hosting Of The Shee’, all spectral horses and wild ghosts charging over maddened folk, would make you question if it could be sung convincingly in any other way.
The album has a number of high points such as the aforementioned song, a gorgeous piece of folk pop in the shape of ‘Sweet Dancer’, and in ‘Let the Earth Bear Witness’ – a beautifully emotive torch song. The presence of our own Katie Kim should also be acknowledged, as she adds a suitably faery-like vocal to the couple of tracks she is involved with. It’s not perfect, however. At times, Scott over-eggs the pudding. His heavy-handed treatment of ‘September 1913’ is rather obvious, and ‘The Lake Isle Of Inishfree’ is converted into a strange, almost funereal thing that is sapping to listen to. But if these are failures, they are at least interesting and noble in their intentions. The most lasting impression this album leaves on the listener is a freshened appreciation of the great adopted Sligo man, and I’m sure that is exactly what Mike Scott intended.