I’m always vaguely suspicious when I hear of a project that involves converting one art form into another, especially if “the original” holds nostalgic sway over me for one reason or another. After all, it can be dangerous territory for an artist to take words that are familiar and even beloved by large numbers of people and then have the audacity to play with them, interpreting them in some way which is new and (there’s no way of getting around it) entirely personal to them.
When I read that The Waterboys were intending to release a new album that would convert the poems of WB Yeats into song, I felt half a jolt of excited anticipation and, yes, an equal one of “oh no, what are they doing”. In the words of front man Mike Scott, taking this on was nothing short of “a radical artistic step”. Not that I don’t have great respect for The Waterboys; I’ve listened to them for years, all the way back to the same halcyon days at university when I was, strangely enough, immersed in the works of WB Yeats in revision for my finals exams. In fact, even back then, the two things seemed to go hand-in-hand: a Yeats essay to finish meant I was likely to slip “Fisherman’s Blues” into my cassette player, just to get me in the mood.
I learn from Amazon that the project has been something of a labour of love, one that was initially conceived two decades ago and which has been years in the making. The video clip on there gave me a small taste of what to expect but, really, not enough to sway me one way or the other. My decision to purchase the album today amounted to a giant leap of faith that, somewhere between nostalgia for Yeats and an appreciation of The Waterboys, seasoned with a healthy shaking of sheer curiosity, I wouldn’t live to regret it.
I wasn’t wrong. “An appointment with Mr Yeats” is now on its third play since I downloaded it just a few hours ago, a back-to-back airing that is not typical of me at all. In part, this is down to sheer enjoyment of the music and a distinct sense that this is one of those albums that gets stronger with each listen, as new layers of detail begin to surface. It is also down to the sheer pleasure of hearing, sung aloud, the words that were once so familiar to me that they could trip off the tongue (oh yes, I also studied Yeats for A level so by the time I did my degree, he was an old friend) and there is much to enjoy in Yeats if you are prepared to listen and unravel; he exudes a strong sense of story-telling in layers, all heavily embroidered with motifs of national culture, politics and historical context. All of this layering of meaning and reference utterly fascinated me at the time, along with James Joyce who, on the subject of translation of literature into popular song, you cannot fail to think of these days, I would say, without also thinking of Kate Bush’s “The Flower of the Mountain” (a track which, along with the rest of the 2011 album “Director’s Cut”, has been revamped in such a way that is proof that you can improve on perfection). Yet, as Mike Scott points out, there is a great deal in the poems that resonates with current events (he is confident that if Yeats had been around today he would have found “much fuel for a similar emotive fire”) so that the “lyrics” of this album hold both poetic nostalgia and modern relevance within their palm, and all so much more beautifully phrased than much of what you hear being uttered aloud beneath the strains of some modern-day music.
I won’t review it track by track as it will be each to their own with this album; suffice to say there is enough variety in the way that each of the poems selected for this project is “carried off” to make it feel like the work that has gone into it has been considerable and well thought through. It is an understatement to say that I was pleasantly surprised and so much so that I feel it justifies a fourth play before the day is out. The BBC verdict, quoted from Amazon, declares that “this is a genuinely successful experiment” and I would concur.
A similar experiment that comes to mind is Natalie Merchant‘s own labour of love “Leave Your Sleep” (2010) on which she put a whole range of nineteenth and twentieth children’s’ poetry to music, interpreting each poem with tender loving care and a hand-in-glove pairing with the appropriate musical genre to convey its theme, supported by an impressive array of instrumentalists gathered together for the task. I was fortunate enough to see her in concert shortly after the album was released and the live performance of songs from the album really dusted away those last few cobwebs of doubt that had accompanied my first hearing of an album that was quite different to anything she had previously released; by the end, and without waver, I knew I was listening to a masterpiece. If I were a poet, I could hope for nothing more than that an artist such as Natalie Merchant or Mike Scott would want to take my poems on and do their stuff to them long after my demise, thus bringing them out of their dusty shelves and into the light for a whole new audience.
“An Appointment with Mr Yeats” The Waterboys
“Leave Your Sleep” Natalie Merchant
All VERY HIGHLY recommended!