Following a number of false starts, A Pagan Place had finally established The Waterboys as not only an act of great promise, and had come tantalisingly close to establishing them as one of the key acts of the decade and masters of the sort of epic and emotional Celtic rock that was poised to fill stadiums through the latter half of the decade. As great as A Pagan Place had been though, it was a little leaden in places and, despite there being no shortage of potential commercial hit single, they still hadn’t enjoyed the breakthrough single they so obviously deserved.
1985’s This Is the Sea took everything great about A Pagan Place, sifted out the vaguely lumpy epics and found Mike Scott and his band mates operating on a hitherto unexplored level as a band. The band had expanded from the core trio of Scott, sax player Anthony Thistlethwaite and multi-instrumentalist and master-arranger Karl Wallinger, to something considerably more recognisable as a rock band. They would also make great use of guest musicians too, with Roddy Lorimer’s trumpet and Steve Wickham’s fiddle providing additional layers to the band’s sound which lifted the album even further.
“Don’t Bang the Drum” is as heart-swelling an opening clarion call as anything you’d hear on any album released in the 1980s. Riding in on a tidal wave of stacked drums and guitars, Scott sounds like he’s prepared to lead an unstoppable charge against the bland, empty gestured stadium sounds that the likes of U2 were starting to unleash.
Actually to be fair, in terms of wide-screen celtic rock, there’s a certain amount of shared sonic DNA between The Waterboys and the likes of U2 and late 80s / early 90s Simple Minds. What marks The Waterboys apart from them is Scott’s way with empathetic and heart-felt lyrics, for example as he tears through “Be My Enemy”, he sings as if he is legitimately pissed off about something, rather than being told to ‘emote pain and suffering’. The Waterboys had a genuineness of emotion which the majority of their contemporaries failed to capture and that is what causes an album like This Is the Sea to stand apart from so many other albums of the era. It’s there throughout “Old England”, it gives a genuine feeling of freedom and release throughout the title track and it causes an otherwise fair to middling tune like “Medicine Bow”, a boost of energy that it may otherwise have lacked.
Of course no review of This Is the Sea is complete without mentioning the one song that The Waterboys will forever be associated with. While “The Whole of the Moon” didn’t become the huge hit single it always deserved to be until 1991, when it was used to promote a Best Of / Greatest Hits compilation, since it’s release it has always been the band’s signature tune. As an expertly crafted slice of escapist pop rock, it has few parallels and even thirty years after it’s initial release, it remains the ultimate example of The Waterboys’ ‘Big Music’ era.
This Is the Sea is an album of rare poise and balance. It’s expansive, sure footed and passionate, never losing focus or lapsing in its sense of purpose. It was an album whose sole purpose was to make The Waterboys one of the biggest bands in the country.
And it almost worked.
This Is the Sea did well enough on the charts, but it struggled to match the sales of their celtic rock contemporaries, regardless of its superior quality. After this Steve Wickham would take Mike Scott to Ireland, where he’d get bitten by the folk bug and turn his back on ‘The Big Music’. This move would gain Scott and The Waterboys significant critical acclaim and a surge in sales, but they’d never again be as vital.