Quite where Mike Scott the solo artist starts and The Waterboys as a band begins has fluctuated over the years, which is in its own way oddly fitting, given the convoluted formation of the band. The formation of The Waterboys saw Scott split from punk group Funhouse, procure a couple of members of Nikki Sudden’s band (including longtime Waterboy Anthony Thistlethwaite) and record a number of demos and sessions with a few hired guns, and clock up some studio time with Lenny Kaye, before those sessions were abandoned in favour of earlier material.
With all this in mind, it’s no surprise then that this self-titled debut sounds a little fragmented. Indeed the band’s debut single, “A Girl Called Johnny” stands out like a sore thumb on the album, due to it’s depth of production compared to the rest of the album, which, given The Waterboys’ later reputation for ‘Big Music’, is surprisingly stark and bare-boned. How much of this is down to the fact that the majority of the tracks are little more than slightly spruced-up demos is a matter for debate, but it gave most of the original album an oddly chilly, almost hollow sound, something only slightly remedied on the 2002 remaster, but which ultimately gave this album a unique sound, even in the diverse post-punk landscape.
Lengthy songs like opener “December” and closer “Savage Earth Heart” give The Waterboys a sense of space, however they are dwarfed by the epic “Gala”. Such sense of scale gives the album a dramatic feel, despite the lack of production overload, and nowhere is this more obvious than “Gala”, although the moody “The Girl in the Swing” does run it close. It’s not all long-coat moping though, as “A Girl Called Johnny” practically bounces along with a piano sound that’s almost jaunty, and the double-punch of the U2-baiting “I Will Not Follow” and the furious “It Should Have Been You” are potent stuff.
An oddly schizophrenic album, The Waterboys still manages to balance the chilliness of the lengthier windswept tracks, with the more focused aggression of its rockier numbers. It’s obviously a debut, as it’s very much the sound of a band finding its feet, establishing its strengths and weaknesses and trying to figure out which direction it wants to take. It is in essence a fine example of the debut album as a teenager, trying to find its way through life and figuring out how to make its own mark on the world. Too often these days debut albums are released and try too hard to convince anyone who listens that the act in question is a fully formed talent and ready for immediate success. The Waterboys is a lesson in how an honest, almost tentative, approach can ultimately result in much bigger rewards in the long run.