There are only a handful of albums that I would actually call “epic,” and This is the Sea, with only nine tracks to speak of (not including the re-released two disc version) is the ultimate example of the word. Mike Scott, a Scotsman born in Edinburgh, started The Waterboys with multi-instrumentalist Anthony Thistlethwaite who Scott had heard play saxophone on a track by the late Nikki Sudden of the Swell Maps. Various players would join and leave The Waterboys, including Karl Wallinger, who after This is the Sea formed World Party, but essentially, the group was Scott’s to live and die with. Their debut self-titled album and sophomore effort, A Pagan Place earned the band favorable comparisons to U2 and Van Morrison, but it was their third album, the final in the trilogy of what fans would call “The Big Music” after a song of theirs, that would prove Scott to be a songwriter to be reckoned with, one with big ideas, a big sound and an epic quality.
It’s going to be difficult for me to describe how much I absolutely adore this record. Every time I listen to it, I rediscover it in a way. Old songs become new again, and consistent favorites make my heart swell with grandiosity. Merely revisiting the title track again and again leaves builds me up to emotional highs and then takes me back down again. Unlike a lot of American albums at the time, This is the Sea was not a compilation of singles. Albums by Michael Jackson and Madonna became hitmakers with no real consistent themes. I mean, really, what does “Billie Jean” have to do with “Thriller”? This is the Sea was all about themes. Love, spirituality, politics, and an overall theme of change stretch throughout the album. Mike Scott writes at length about the massive undertaking that went into This is the Sea in the liner notes for the deluxe edition reissue, including the fact that three artists heavily influenced the result, the Velvet Underground, Van Morrison and Steve Reich. Each one taught him specific things about music that he incorporated into the final product, and each one can be picked out at specific times, but This is the Sea is Mike Scott’s, and one of the defining moments of his life.
The album opens with “Don’t Bang the Drum,” a song first brought in by Karl Wallinger, then altered by Scott to fit the themes and sounds of the album. Scott sets the thematic tone with the first lines, “Well here we are in a special place / What are you gonna do here?” It was a question not only to the listener, but also to himself. And what Scott does in this special place is create one of the most stirring albums in history. The song, like most on the album, swells with importance, adding layer upon layer of sound, with his voice getting more and more frantic, near the point of frenzy. The one hit from the album followed in the inspiring “The Whole of the Moon.” This is the one song that was not fully written before The Waterboys entered the studio to begin recording, and it turned out to be a blessing. Partly addressed to a composite of C.S. Lewis, Mark Helprin and once-rumored Prince (yet not true), the song features Scott in awe of his intended target, where he finds his vision small in comparison with his idols. The last glorious verse was written and added in the studio, with Scott once again whipping himself up into rapture.
The simple religious poem “Spirit” gets set to more simple instrumentation to convey his message more succinctly, and at less than two minutes is the shortest track on the album. “The Pan Within” is another standout and the song that introduced me to songs beyond the one single (a former girlfriend put it on a mixtape for me and I became obsessed with the song). She liked it because she was a huge fan of all things Peter Pan, somewhat based on the idea of the Greek god Pan which is the real influence for the song. Part meditation and part sultry invitation to sex, the song is yet another epic free-for-all. “Old England” uses a line taken from James Joyce: ‘Old England is dying,’ while attacking Thatcherism and lamenting heroin use. “Trumpets” is a straightforward love song that features one of my favorite romantic lines, “I want to be with you when being with you is the same as Being you.” The album closes with the title track, one of the crowning achievements in songwriting. Scott borrows heavily from Van Morrison’s song styling, especially “Sweet Thing,” which he covers on the double disc set. It, and its bookend partner, “Don’t Bang the Drum” each reach past the six minute mark, but “This is the Sea” feels longer somehow, and you never want it to end. The song is all about change, answering the question posed in the opening lines of “Don’t Bang the Drum,” as he encourages us to go from the limited to the unlimited. He sings to someone, possibly us, who has had hard times, remembering the past as a dark mark on life and who can’t move past the hurt. He implores us to remember, “That was the river, this is the sea.” In other words, it’s time to get up, dust ourselves off, and do something. And by the close of the album, he has also answered his own question, by fulfilling his own promise and delivering one hell of an album.
Mike Scott once said that This is the Sea was “the record on which I achieved all my youthful musical ambitions.” Not only did he achieve them, he surpassed them. The albums of the Waterboys’ “Big Music” period would be compared alongside, and in some cases inspire, the work of other bands of the time including Simple Minds, the Alarm, Big Country and, of course, U2. But nothing was as ‘big’ sounding as the Waterboys, especially amazing considering that the band was mostly, at the time, made up of only three primary musicians. This is the Sea is made up of everything I love, intelligent allusion, literary lyrics, acoustic folk mixed with electric rock, impassioned vocals and wondrous imagery. Anytime I’m looking for music to actually ‘move me,’ I pick up This is the Sea and crank up the volume. I can run on one spin for weeks.