Review Summary: be my enemy be my enemy be my enemy
When I was thirteen, I had the audacity to think Stereophonics had the greatest lyricist in the world. This makes Kelly Jones an enduringly important figure in my life, whether I like it or not. For the record, I don’t; I’m now tied to the guy who wrote “She Takes Her Clothes Off”, and I have to live with that forever. What are your musical battle scars, compared to that?
I have accepted that Jones is the first writer I chose to study. By study, I mean listen to, obsessively. I pored over his lyrics in the ways that made sense to the kid me, which meant no lyrics sheets, no second opinions, just a lot of rewind time on my walkman, hearing segments of his stories reoccur to see how they stood up. A few months into my obsession with Jones, however, something very important happened, and I broke free of that spell. I looked up “Same Size Feet” on the internet and found an article that shifted my worldview. It told me that Kelly based the song, whose lyrics circled around an unresolved murder, a missing friend, and the wishful thinking that both were coincidence, around a screenplay he had been writing. Suddenly I decided Kelly was more than just a guy who set words to music. He’d thought this through. He’d mulled on death. This was a real type of fiction.
Seven years on, I’m still letting the same half-truths into my life. I’m not interested in reading Kelly’s script, and I don’t think I ever was, but I let it matter. The same thing is now happening with The Waterboys’ This Is The Sea
, an album I unearthed a few months ago and am only now coming to love uncompromisingly. Reading bios of lyricist Mike Scott is dangerous: I knew he made high-tension, thrilling folk-rock-cum-just-rock (because thanks, ears), but reading different stories of him on the internet taught me that he was a student: of rock music, sure, but also just a student in the way we all were. He studied English, and then Philosophy. He was influenced by it. “Of course”, the internet spat at me, “of course he wrote a song about C.S. Lewis”. The problem, to me, became that the album was trying to be converted into a story: if we stared long enough at these lyrics, we’d be staring at the work of a literary figure, rather than just a fan of books.
It’s funny because Scott isn’t a novelist, nor a philosopher playing the long-game (like, in my experience, that means finishing an entire Neitzsche book); he’s just a guy who made the best notes. I’d like to think his studies echo mine, and that he glimpses a moment of perfection from his favourite author, then stands by it as a code of moral conduct. Scott’s lyrics aren’t particularly impressive as textual works to pore over, but while he might not have the kind of folk rock blood that warrants putting Other Poems on your record’s back sleeve, he remains one of my favourite lyricists. He gets what it is to be right for a moment
, and so the stars align and the words for the chaos come before him. There’s no one better than Scott for a line of tantalizing lucidity. No one else knows how important the marriage of chorus is to aphorism. On “This Is The Sea”, the album’s titular track, he weaves a story about the fickle transference of good fortune, the way the world decides when you can be autonomous and when you get decided upon. The way he sings it, it sounds like a sermon, its verses collecting all the fears of a sceptic and sending them uselessly to the sky. It’s a narrative that needs encouraging, moving from the facts a person knows (“You wanna turn your back / on your soulless days”) to those that need unlocking (“once you were tethered, now you are free”). He finds reprieve in one line, said over and over like it could ever be reassuring: “but that was the river / and this is the sea”.
What that line means to me is that, well, freedom is a tricky thing, even with the strictest moral compass. Scott suggests to his subject that they can do anything, but then he invokes the sea like it’s a different bag entirely, a big body of water that will eat you alive if you try and swim through it. The line split through This Is The Sea
– “once you were tethered, now you are free” – is first cast in “Spirit”, a brightly developing piano rock jam that’s confused about where we succeed and fail to make decisions as people, and where we live as particles, without these words. “Spirit”, incidentally, is the perfect song for Scott; it’s just shy of two minutes and pours out nothing but clarifying aphorisms, cut into two morally succinct columns. Tethered, and free, sure, but also crawling and flying, living and dying, dreaming and being. It’s on any motivational playlist I make, because it teaches you to go from one to the other – “what spirit is man can be”.
These are easy ideologies, fu
cked up by an indecisive thinker. Scott is an excellent life coach on “Spirit”, but he negates all that goodwill on “This Is The Sea" because he’s a dramatist. I wish he had studied drama at college so we could have heard that story in his bio, the one where This Is The Sea
is theatrical and hyperbolic because that’s what he learned. Instead of playing his album like a book with chapters, Scott makes abrupt spiritual concessions, and lets them all share the same stage. He begins “The Pan Within” and “This Is The Sea” with primitive wails, his version of fanfare, as if something is about to happen, or as if for this one particular song we are going to depart. “The Pan Within” is a perfect example of that, a song predicated on melodrama, and too caught up in it to follow its own advice: “Close your eyes, breathe slow and we will begin”, Scott sings, but it sounds like he’s fleeing town at night. That’s the only way he can take a lover’s hand. How rock opera this album is. It’s full of frantic trumpeting and pulsating drumming, and piano played like the notes are being pressed into the dust, a man standing up as he plays them as if he has to conduct the instrument.
My favourite song on This Is The Sea
is “Be My Enemy”, the peak of the album’s battles with blood and water. I have a history with the song that seems perfect, making it even more tense and ridiculous; it came into my hands as the album opener, and became the first song I heard. When I first heard it I thought I was in for a record with a horrible and heart-wrenching resolution, one that followed this story to its death. “Be My Enemy” throws itself with a propulsive, forwarding blues rhythm, its guitars loosened and its piano relentless, evoking the soundtrack for two rogues running towards each other for a fight that will last seconds when it actually happens. Of course, it makes way more sense that the song comes in sixth on the album, after a bell-ringing, dockside view of England’s history on “Old England” (a song more focused on the details a man sees than the man himself: the rain and the dirt and the countryside, the things that made England what it was). If it had begun This Is The Sea
, it would have started a story, so it makes more sense “Be My Enemy” is tension ex nihilo, more more unsolicited upheaval upheaval on an album that keeps saying “But wait!” to every decision, to every ideology, to every way the world surely is.
I guess what I’m trying to say about This Is The Sea
is I can totally see why it’s one of Bono’s favourite records ever. It is overwhelmingly cheesy, but only maybe; it’s so over the top, but is that unrealistic? I listen to the ridiculously brassy performance that busts open the album, or the sparkly power pop synths in “The Whole of The Moon” (which buoy, you know, more trumpets), and I see the hypothetical situation where they don’t sound right, where they instead sound stupid. But there’s something to be said for the execution of an absolutely crazy album. Scott believed in what he was making with This Is The Sea
, whether he was using it to send an homage to C.S. Lewis, working as a life coach or slinging guns. There’s a sense he could get at what it all meant as long as it was this album, the one with air-piercing howls on at least three of its songs, the most notable one being at the very end of “Don’t Bang The Drum”. It’s a signal of what’s most important about the album: not the spirituality, necessarily, but the belief in it – and the moment, just as wide-eyed, when the belief lapses.