Fisherman’s Blues, The Waterboys’ fourth album, came out the year Twist and Shout opened, 1988, and it was my favorite record in my first year as a record store owner. This may seem like an inconsequential milestone to most but I took the job pretty seriously and felt that I needed to be able to say with some genuine authority: “I think this is the best album of the year.” I had been following music carefully my whole life and was familiar with most everything that was popular at the time. I knew who The Waterboys were and had heard some of their songs on the radio, but was generally unfamiliar with their music. This turned out to be pretty irrelevant as Fisherman’s Blues represented a new direction for the band. With the departure of Karl Wallinger and the addition of fiddle player Steve Wickham, leader Mike Scott took his band on a journey through his ethnic, cultural and artistic roots over a two year period and the resulting album is one of the defining moments of British folk-rock.
Opening with the absolutely breathtaking title song Scott sings “Well I wish I was a Fisherman, tumblin’ on the seas/ far away from dry land and its bitter memories” and we know immediately we are on a journey. The music sails through the album being completely true to both the Celtic/Scottish roots Scott embraced so closely, but never being any less true to his calling as a rock singer. Like The Pogues or The Band this music is as equally legitimate as rock and roll as it is folk. Led by Wickham’s lyrical fiddle playing, the songs drip with traditional instruments - fifes, horns, accordions - while being propelled by hard-driving Hammond organ and a rock rhythm section.
Scott’s writing is a rare breed in popular music, having both an ear for the undeniable hook, and a brain for heady, poetic expression. His influences, ranging from poet W.B. Yeats to Hank Williams to Van Morrison, The Beatles and Woody Guthrie, are all worn proudly on his sleeve as he takes on Morrison’s “Sweet Thing” to great effect, ad-libbing a verse of “Blackbird” in the middle. “Has Anybody Here Seen Hank?” captures Williams in both insightful profile, and fan-like admiration, and the magnificent album closer “The Stolen Child” pairs W.B. Yeats’ poetry (as read by famed Gaelic singer Thomas McKeown) with The Waterboys’ hypnotic acoustic approach, and then cleverly appends a bit of “This Land Is Your Land” at the end replacing Celtic locations for the American landmarks in Woody’s version. The best parts of the album though are the songs written by Scott, which detail his internal quest for identity, happiness and love. “We Will Not Be Lovers” is a clear-eyed and heartbroken assessment of love gone wrong, while “And A Bang On The Ear” affectionately recalls past romantic triumphs and failures. Perhaps no song captures what is great about The Waterboys better than “Strange Boat” which opens with the lines “We’re sailing in a strange boat, headin’ for a strange shore/ carrying the strangest cargo that was ever hauled aboard” and continues to essentially tell the story of The Waterboys, which in turn tells the story of all artists in pursuit of truth, beauty and meaning.
Every song on Fisherman’s Blues is a moving insight into Mike Scott’s journey to find himself. It has the mature songwriting and superlative lyrical expression of a mature man, but the music has the buoyancy and spirit of youth. 27 years after its release it feels as fresh and alive as the day it came out to my ears. It remains one of my favorite albums, of any year.
- Paul Epstein