I often laud skillful diversity; The Waterboys are no exception and deserve applause for the dynamic ways they express Yeats’ poetry.
Proper Records, 2013
8.7 / 10.0
Finally. The time has come. Long I’ve desired an artist to write lyrics as though they were submitting a poem to a literary journal or, hell, release a collection of works. Too often lyrics are used as excuses to stretch vocal chords, which in some cases is just fine, as the vocalist is fantastic. But as a pretentious Philosophy/Religion and English major, I value clarity, brevity, sublimity, and a bit of language play. The Waterboys have somewhat fulfilled my request and hired Irish poet W.B. Yeats to write the lyrics, for, well, An Appointment with Mr. Yeats. And by ‘hired,’ I mean they tossed a few bucks at a 74-year-old grave. No hard feelings, Waterboys, you give his poetry a very Celtic sound, fittingly.
For you despisers of theses that, to the untrained eye, read like sleeping pills (e.g., “Nietzsche’s ‘Übermensch’ theory allows for Buddhahood and the Middle Path), Yeats’ poetry is narrative, giving the lyrics a more entertaining structure, but, innate to story, room for more ambiguity and obscurity than dialectic.
Let’s first look at what The Waterboys have done to do Yeats’ poetry justice.
The introduction track, “The Hosting of the Shee,” re-romanized for easier pronunciation from ‘Sidhe,” changes none of the lyrics from the poem.
The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.
The host is rushing ‘twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.
Yeats’ meter seems to be four iambs per line, or iambic tetrameter. This translates to one reading the first line as “The HOST is RIDing from KNOCKnaREA.” Fuck prepositions.
Mike Scott and the other contributing vocalists remain true to the poems’ meter. As said before, Scott uses all of the poems verbatim, but for the sake of stress and repetition more accepted in songs, especially choruses, he will slow the progress by repeating a line. As with “The Hosting Of The Shee,” he repeats the phrase “Away, come Away,” often lingering on the final syllable to stress the distancing request, the fleeting hope given up by the line “empty your heart of its mortal dream,” which Scott does introduce out of original order, later in the song.
I have no knowledge of Irish folklore, nor have I done the research to contribute any scholarly footnotes or profound theses about the poetry, but after a cursory reading about the depressed fairy Clooth-na-Bare, the warrior Caoilte, and the human loving goddess Niamh, it seems Yeats is combining myths and folktales and portrays Caoilte as the human that Niamh falls in love with and invites to the Land of Youth (see “Away, come away”). Likely it is Niamh calling for Caoilte to “empty [his] heart of this mortal dream” and live an immortal life with her. As is tradition, something goes awry — Niamh’s mortal love decides to abandon the land of youth and return to his world, only to find hundreds of years have passed and upon touching the ground of his old existence, he receives the many years the Land of Youth saved him from.
Now, why is this important to a music review? Well, unless you only listen for the pretty sounds and ignore the imagery they can induce, then I guess it’s not. But for those interested in the full experience of music, I hope that a fuller understanding of the lyrics’ history paints a more vivid story to enjoy and learn from as you listen to the song.
But what’s the music sound like, you ask? Envision what ‘stereotypical Irish folk music’ sounds like to you; if that involves grand prose (satisfied by the poetry), fast paced fiddles, uilleann pipes, mandolins, guitars, and harmonicas, then you’ve successfully anticipated a few songs on the album. As for the rest, you encounter Daniel Powter-esque pop songs (“Sweet Dancer”), Smooth Rock and Soul (“The Lake Isle Of Innisfree”), Rock ballads (“Song Of Wandering Aengus”), Irish folk (“The Hosting Of The Shee”), and a host of multi-genred pieces.
I often laud skillful diversity; The Waterboys are no exception and deserve applause for the dynamic ways they express Yeats’ poetry. If this review feels like too much of an essay and a book review, then you may begin to understand how little an essential difference there is between literature, music, art and our methods for evaluating them. Best poem/song on the album? “An Irish Airman Forsees His Death.”
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.