Best albums of 1988: #3 The Waterboys “Fisherman’s blues”

In a previous post on these pages, I told the story of how I worked in the tool rental industry in the years immediately following graduation and during this time, met a guy named Chris, whose last name may now forever escape me, and with whom I shared musical tastes. Often while working together, we would talk music and share concert stories and recommendations and often with him, The Waterboys would be mentioned. I think the first time the name came up was after I told him about how much of a Wonder Stuff fan I was. After that, he would ask me, “Did you listen to them yet?” (‘them’ being The Waterboys), to which I would ashamedly shake my head in the negative. After a few weeks of this, I finally gave a listen to the title track off “Fisherman’s blues”, one of three albums he listed as recommended (“you’ll love any one of them”). I did enjoy the song but then, later the same evening, I heard it again during the opening credits of “Waking Ned Devine”, a film I had randomly picked to go see at my local rep theatre. It then seemed to me fated that I should fall in love with the song. I went out to buy the album shortly afterwards on CD and fell in love with the whole darned thing too.

The Waterboys are mainly the musical vehicle for creative force and frontman Mike Scott. He formed the group in 1983 and, save for a few years where he released work under his own name, the band has been a going concern with a rotating cast of characters. The only other long standing member that is with the group to this day is Irish fiddler Steve Wickham, who helped along the first change in sound after joining the force in 1985. Prior to the fourth album, which is the album of our discussion today, The Waterboys’ music was post-punk based with only hints of folk. “Fisherman’s blues” came out of lengthy recording sessions in Ireland and was heavily influenced by the traditional folk music of that country. It divided listeners at the time between those fans that wanted more of the ‘big music’ and those that loved the new sound. Nowadays, though, it is widely considered the band’s masterpiece.

The mass amounts of recordings that resulted from the year long sessions were such that, more than a decade later, Scott was able to put out a whole other excellent album, a sequel of sorts, from the pieces that didn’t make the original cut. That also means to me that “Fisherman’s blues” is a complete album, devoid of filler, and almost impossible to distill down to three picks for you. Still, I have managed a close approximation. Have a listen.

”Strange boat”: Track number three is a mellow number on the album. Acoustic strum, lazy beat and bass just plod along as a Mike Scott throws out a number of metaphors for this bizarre journey we call life. “We’re living in a strange time, working for a strange goal. We’re turning flesh and body into soul.” But if that sentiment’s not beautiful enough for you, Steve Wickham takes the song out of pedestrian territory with his heaven-meandering fiddles.

”And a band on the ear”: Track seven is nine minutes on the album and was released as the second single in a six and half minute version. It’s a lively, boppy jam that gives guest musician, Máirtín O’Connor, lots of room to prowl with his accordion and of course, Wickham to flail us again with his fiddles. It just begs for you to get up and dance. Meanwhile, Mike Scott regales us in each verse of tales of past loves, saving the best (and current) one for last. “So my woman of the hearthfire, harbour of my soul. I watch you lightly sleeping and sense the dream that does unfold (like gold). You to me are treasure, you to me are dear so I’ll give you my love with a bang on the ear.” And if you’re wondering, “bang on the ear” is not threatening violence but an expression of Celtic origin that refers to an affectionate kiss.

”Fisherman’s blues”: Though as mentioned above, the title track and first single off “Fisherman’s blues” was my introduction to the band, this is not the only reason it’s still my all time favourite Waterboys track. The other reason is more obvious than that, it’s just pure awesome. Here, Wickham’s fiddles are paired with Anthony Thistlethwaite’s mandolin. The two together create a raucous kitchen party all by themselves and the bass and drums can’t help but follow their jaunty lead and Scott yelps enthusiastic “Woo!”s in spite of himself. The lyrics describe Scott’s yearning for a simpler and freer life, like that of a fisherman or train engine driver, at the same time knowing that such a life is not without pitfalls. However… “Well I know I will be loosened from bonds that hold me fast, that the chains all hung around me, will fall away at last. And on that fine and fateful day, I will take me in my hands. I will ride on the train. I will be the fisherman.” It does sound very romantic in his words and music, doesn’t it? Woooo!!!

Check back next Thursday for album #2. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. The Sugarcubes “Life’s too good”
9. Erasure “The innocents”
8. Billy Bragg “Worker’s playtime”
7. Jane’s Addiction “Nothing’s shocking”
6. Leonard Cohen “I’m your man”
5. R.E.M. “Green”
4. Pixies “Surfer rosa”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

15 replies on “Best albums of 1988: #3 The Waterboys “Fisherman’s blues””

Great record – it would make my top 5 for 1988 too. Have you heard the other tracks from the sessions that were issued as Fisherman Blues #2? I found them interesting as they’re much more like “The Big Music” they were making with This Is The Sea.

Liked by 1 person

I can’t argue with you there. It’s the only one of his that I have in my vinyl collection. I do have a soft spot for Glastonbury song, though, on Dream Harder, an album to which I would otherwise never listen.

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I gave up after Room to Roam, which was good, but felt like a lesser version of Fisherman’s Blues. One song I love is ‘Some of My Best Friends Are Trains’ – it’s an outtake from A Pagan Place, and it’s great.

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I saw Waterboys on a relatively recent tour and liked some of the stuff he labeled as recent. But I honestly haven’t given the last two albums a chance.

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