The Waterboys Keep Us Guessing On Eclectic ‘All Souls Hill’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

When we last heard from The Waterboys frontman Mike Scott, he indicated that true to his storied history, just one year shy of the 40th anniversary of the band’s debut album, he was embarking on a new direction. He had considered 2017’s Out of All This Blue, 2019’s Where the Action Is, and 2020’s Good Luck, Seeker a trilogy of sorts. Those albums, filled with synths, loops, and hip-hop production techniques were a marked departure from the organic rock that preceded them with 2015’s Modern Blues. Many fans, and this writer, were hoping that Scott would move back in that direction. Instead, he gives us a bit of both sonic worlds on the latest, All Souls Hill, which leans more toward a solo Mike Scott foray than a full band effort. 

Arguably, the next most important enduring contributor to the band’s sound over these four decades, fiddler Steve Wickham, is not present. Whether Wickham was to be in these sessions is unclear, but he did announce in February that he is no longer a touring member of the band but could participate in future studio projects. So, instead, Scott found a new collaborator in Simon Dine, who co-wrote and co-produced four critically acclaimed albums with Paul Weller. Scott did all the mixing of these nine tracks himself.

Scott’s plans in seeking a new sonic direction may well have been put on hold by the pandemic. Spending more unexpected time in his studio he found a file of instrumental tracks that Dine had sent him, so working together, much of the electronic oriented sounds that had marked the three previous albums returned here, although Scott also includes a few that take a more organic tact. Scott self-describes the album this way, “The album All Souls Hill is mysterious, otherworldly, tune-banging and emotionalIts nine songs tell stories, explore dreamscapes, and cast a cold but hopeful eye on the human drama.”

Three singles have already been released. The title track features spoken word over a funky backdrop of electric guitars, synth stabs and his touring rhythm tandem of bassist Aongus Ralston and drummer Ralph Salmins. “Here We Go Again,” is another example of Scott essentially using his own studio, using samples and loops for a singalong upbeat tune that belies his message which he describes this way. The third is “The Liar,” as direct an anti-Trump song as any with bandmates Ralston, Salmins, and Brother Paul in tow.

Several of these are of the dreamy, mythological soundscapes that Scott has long favored such as “Southern Moon” and “In My Dreams.” Interestingly, the half-spoken, half-sung “Hollywood Blues,” may be one of the last session recordings for saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, who plays along with Ralston, Salmins, and UK keyboardist James Hallawell in one of the few full band tracks. Two clear highlights are Scott’s reworking of Robbie Robertson’s “Once Were Brothers” to which he rewrote some of the lyrics as well his epic rendition of the folk standard “Passing Through,” where Brother Paul co-produces. These give us hope that Scott hasn’t abandoned his organic side.

And Scott is still Scott all these years later, incomparably articulating lyrics and delivering them with passion. Not only does he still have plenty to say in his uniquely expressive way, but he still likes to have fun. If you’re fortunate enough to get the version with bonus tracks, a boisterous cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” follows “Passing Through,” showing that Scott hasn’t abandoned his hard-rocking side either.

Scott, true to form, keeps us guessing. All Souls Hill feels like a gradual step with the heavier foot planted on the electronic DIY side while venturing back to the organic with the lighter foot.

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