Plugged in and still plugging away

The Waterboys' Mike Scott reconnects with the rock

The Waterboys were one of the few '80s bands that still warranted serious thought by mid-decade. Along with their Emerald Isle neighbors in U2, Mike Scott and company churned out sensitive-to-surly mini-epics draped in the sort of quasi-universal messages of faith and searching ("Savage Earth Heart," "The Big Music," "The Whole of the Moon") that court obsessive fandom. Cerebral and poetic to a fault, the Waterboys' inflated sense of purpose appeared destined for stadiums worldwide.

That is, until Scott pulled the plug on that notion in 1986.

"It had really reached its peak; I'd done it," he says.

Calling from London, Scott is juggling a move to a new house with rehearsals for the Waterboys' first tour in more than a decade. The group's new album, A Rock in the Weary Land, finds Scott strapping on the electric guitar and falling back on his rock instincts as both producer and bandleader. Yet Rock is hardly a giddy testament to the joys of rediscovery. Channeling the lingering anxious energy from Scott's late-'90s return to the rigors of city life, tracks like the lead-off "Let it Happen," "Lucky Day/Bad Advice" and "Dumbing Down the World" are more testy and bitter than anything, trading melody for loop-and-sample-heavy repetition (inspired, no doubt, by the Chemical Brothers, whose work Scott calls "the future of rock 'n' roll"). As if to ram home the dreary mood, the credits on "Dumbing Down the World" include the remark, "Recorded in Hell."

"At the time, British culture appeared grotesque, and I wanted to capture that grotesqueness," says Scott. "I still feel that way, but it affects me less now."

Still, there's plenty on Rock to indicate that Scott's anthemic gifts haven't been lost in the sooty, depressing urban wasteland he's chosen as his latest aural movie set. The billowy beauty of "The Charlatan's Lament," "We Are Jonah" and "My Love is my Rock in the Weary Land" refuses to be beaten back by the album's opaque production and abrasive megaphonic vocal effects — even when saddled with sentiments as bleak as "I should be weeping but it only hurts when I yawn."

In fact, a few moments on Rock hint at the gusty majesty of the Waterboys best '80s work. And while it is short on members from that era, two — multi-instrumentalist Andy Thistlethwaite and drummer Kevin Wilkinson — do make a token appearance.

Still, it would be a mistake to wax too nostalgic over the Waterboys' seventh album in 18 years. After all, this is not the Mike Scott of 1985's This Is the Sea, which quickly became an instant college-rock staple along the lines of Murmur and War. By then, the group had evolved from what was largely a Scott solo project (1983's The Waterboys and '84's A Pagan Place) to a full-fledged seven-piece capable of making some serious noise. Adding heft to the band's sound at the time, trumpeter Roddy Lorimer, fiddle player Steve Wickham and keyboardist Karl Wallinger (who would make his own mark with World Party) joined Scott, Thistlethwaite and Wilkinson.

But just as it seemed the Waterboys might crack the globe wide open, and perhaps even give Bono and the boys a run for their money, Scott cut everyone loose but Wickham and Thistlethwaite, and slowly went about scaling back his self-described "cinematic widescreen" vision. The Celtic-folk-infused Fisherman's Blues was the result. Released in 1988, it rocked hard enough to fend off most Chieftains fans, while messing about with the American institutions of country, gospel and blues in the process. It remains the Waterboys' best commercial showing. Room to Roam continued the folky streak two years later.

Scott moved around a lot in the '90s, and albums followed wherever he went. Dislocated and desperate, the more rock-oriented Dream Harder was the product of his few-year stay in New York City. Then came a pair of solo albums: 1995's Bring 'Em All In — which chronicled his experiences as a resident of the Findhorn Foundation, a spiritual community in his native Scotland — and 1997's Still Burning.

From a career standpoint, Scott couldn't be any flakier if he tried — and by his own account, he's not really trying at all.

"A new set of fascinations [always seem to] come into focus," Scott says of his lifelong compulsion to wander. "I don't really think about it when I'm making records."

The Waterboys perform Sat., Sept. 29, at the Roxy, 3110 Roswell Road. Show time is 9 p.m. Tickets are $21.50. For more information, call 404-249-6400 or visit www.atlantaconcerts.com.??