The prospect of Celtic folk-rockers The Waterboys putting the words of Ireland’s arch-poet W.B. Yeats to music is a thrilling one. Surely these makers of “the Big Music” will tap into the mystic airs that emit from Yeats’ great words and create a masterpiece that lilts them if not to new heights, then at least in interesting new directions?
Alas, ‘twas not to be. While The Waterboys’ signature style would seem to make sense with lyrics provided by Yeats, the band’s approach, which mainly consists of rote reading of the verses—verse-melody-verse—doesn’t flow, and just draws attention to the feeling there is something holding this project back.
Interestingly, pace seems to make the difference in how successful individual tracks are. The slowest numbers are most ineffective, turning Yeats’ poetry into merely background music. “September 1913” is particularly misguided, with the music evoking an audience of nodding heads swaying to any easy beat, which is not at all the right tone for this poem. Too many of the album’s songs feel mismatched in this same way, especially when your lit-major-within starts analyzing and notices the poetic rhythm is not the one that would normally be used if you read these aloud. The collaboration is most successful when the band picks up the tempo and lets a rocking cadence move them along. At these moments, you hear the poems not as you may know them, but lifted off the page and given over to song. The Brecht-ian (now Waits-ian) calliope lilt of “News for the Delphic Oracle” allows a different rhythm to find its way in, as does the welcome letting-loose of “Mad as the Mist and Snow.” Strangely enough, most of these songs work the best if you stop thinking of them as Yeats’ words and just let the lyrics wash over you and the music carry you along. It seems odd, though, to not pay attention to those words; isn’t this sort of the point of this album?
It’s well documented The Waterboys are capable of transcendent moments—like the whoops Mike Scott lets out in “Fisherman’s Blues” that, even dead sober, make my eyes well with tears—I just don’t find them here as I hoped or expected. So where “An Appointment with Mr. Yeats” should be terrific, it just doesn’t deliver.