NO FINER MUSIC of clear, honest spiritual reflection came out in the 1980s than that of The Waterboys. Their songwriter, frontman, and focal point was always Scotland-born Mike Scott. After the band fizzled out with lineup and direction changes and tepid albums during this decade, Scott regrouped personally. The emotional and spiritual journey taken by Scott during this time, focused in the New Age retreat centre of the Findhorn Community in north east Scotland, was chronicled in the 1995 solo debut Bring ‘Em All In.
This time around, the folk rock feel of that album is eschewed. In its place is a full rock band approach more reminiscent of The Waterboys’ finest work. Still intensely personal and honestly chronicling a spiritual walk, the album Still Burning is a triumph.
That epic rock – a guitar band fused with horns that fans dubbed big music during The Waterboys’ heyday – is where Scott is at with his tandem of various session vets is clear from the spiritual autobiography of the opening track, Questions. Baring his soul with his Scottish brogue, he seems to compare casting aside his bygone years as rock poster boy to Joseph casting aside his coat of many colours. More crucial at age 39 are the primary questions, culminating in, How Well Have I Loved?
Familiar themes recur for Scott on this album. One is the admission of his sinful nature, as is central to the song My Dark Side. We see this foible playing out in the darkness of despair in Dark Man of My Dreams. Here, the culprit is identified as the “killer of the hoping heart (who) is choking me (and) has broken me,” only repelled by our faith statement to the Evil One “you’ve got no business here.”
Of course, there are love post mortems such as Personal. Even more special is the grooving classic popper Rare, Precious and Gone. Here, the guy-lost-gal motif is taken to a higher level of imagery, clarity, and freshness. In this wonderful piece, the male protagonist is taken to task for trying the subtle trap (of) seeding guilt in her mind, playing head games rather than accepting reality.
More upbeat lyrically is the grand, swirling Love Anyway. It is another of the wonderful blends of rock, pop and instrumentation that joyously recalls the grooving 4/4 rock of The Waterboys. A very clearly New Age chronicle of two star-crossed lovers stumbling towards self-actualization, its goal is, “When the Big Me meets the Big You, the things we will do.”
The requiem King Electric, the country-tinged autobiography of an artist who recognizes the scars of his childhood Strawberry Man, and the guitar-led frolic of the closing track Since I Found My School, that sees an older, wiser Scott declare “got no home, got no hits, but that’ s cool” – all are facets of this personal diamond of an album.
However, the gem most personally glistens on a pair of stark, acoustic pieces. Everlasting Arms is a simple prayer for the Lord’ s presence with none of the obtuse nature of some of the other tracks, while the song Open bears an uncanny resemblance to the loving poetry of the Christian visionary St. John of the Cross. In the latter, one might think that the object of the affections is a human of the opposite gender until the capital letter on the lyric sheet shows that Beloved is God. The recurring virtue of the song is to be open to any number of things that make for life savoured and acutely aware of God as Beloved.
Like many contemporary artists, Mike Scott’ s pilgrimage is reflected in his work. Few, however, include such scope and detail – or have the spiritual autobiography as such a main component in their craft.
That Scott’ s references to his God are usually universalist in scope is, on the one hand, disappointing to the Christian listener. On the other, it is entirely possible for one to visualize God’s unique and complete revelation in Christ Jesus as one internalizes music of unquestionable beauty and depth. Good music that can be good for the soul is surely a wonderful gift. Rev. Wilfred Langmaid is rector of Carleton, Saint John, and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner.