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Universal Hall
Artist: The Waterboys
Label: Puck
Length: 12 tracks

Like his hero Bob Dylan, whose Rolling Thunder Revue gave him the muse for his finest moment, Fisherman's Blues’ Mike Scott has a wonderfully limited attention span. His records flit around from loud to quiet, from city to the rural and seaside. Where 2000’s Rock In a Weary Land bounced off the skyscrapers of London’s mad clammer and clatter, where Scott saw a world dumbing down and needed a rock to hang on to, here he is in the Universal Hall of the tiny religious commune Findhorn on the north east coast of Scotland away from all the noise and pollution. His spirit is eased and mystically dancing again. As an aside, the release of the late 80’s Fisherman’s Blues Sessions in between was a perfect bridge.

This, though, is the follow up to Bring Em On In, the last album he recorded in this very location in 1995. Of course some may see it as the follow up to Room To Roam as it sees Scott reconciled to his 80’s side kick Steve Wickham but there is nothing raggle-taggle about this though the rustic earthy spirit of those lost years in Spiddal is evident along with a few other echoes of former Waterboys incarnations. These are songs of spiritual journey, of insights gained and wisdom sought.

The spiritually-uninformed-though-they-think-they-know-it-all British music press is naming this a Christian album recorded in a Christian community, but Findhorn has never taken any Christian label. It is a new age place of soul searching that always seems a little up in the air to commit in any specific direction and a great director for Scott’s spiritual muse. In fairness to the ultra secular rock critics, Scott’s compass does point towards the Christian with influences like CS Lewis and the mystical island of Iona.

The songs here name-check Christ a fair bit on and between the lines of the songs. “The Light Of The World” was a name Jesus took for himself and his followers and there are enough lights here to brighten up a winter night in the highlands. There are phrases familiar to the Christian religion like fellowship, born again and saints. But Scott also sees himself as a reincarnated being in “I’ve Lived Here Before,” so for my friends in the rock press: Christians do not believing reincarnation!

Overall, though, this will be an album much more palatable for a believer than an atheist. Scott has a wonderful ability to make the most simplistic songs more acceptable than the average songwriter and his voice and phrasings do earn him an enormous amount of forgiveness but this is a religious piece. There are great little truths in the meditative repeating of the words he has written in such meditative works as “The Christ in You,” “Seek the Light,” “EBOL,” “Silent Fellowship” and “Ain’t No Words for the Things I’m Feeling.” “In Christ In You” he sings “Am I gonna look twice at you/Until I see the Christ in you.” If everyone looked twice at people instead of rushed first impressions the world would have better social fabric. In “Seek the Light” we are reminded not to just seek light but when we find it “be the light,” a reflection of the truth that we find.

There is a peace as “Peace of Iona” puts it so well and though the music is sparse, there are marvelous little flourishes of Richard Naiff’s piano conjuring memories of Van the Man’s inarticulate seech days. Wickham’s presence gives the angels wings and his instrumental “The Dance At The Crossroads” is as Room To Roam as you would like them to get. Inexplicably, there is a clash of sound and purposes on “Seek the Light” with its throwback to “Rock in a Weary Land,” for what reason it is hard to find.

Top of the credits is Scott’s voice; passionate, compassionate, searching and being found. This thin place between the body and the spirit, earth and beyond is his voice’s finest hour. Indeed, if anyone has the dichotomy of an angelic and earthly voice, then it is Mike Scott. Enough of cerebral analysis though, my soul has some reflection to do. Switch off the manmade light on the way out.

By Steve Stockman 6/24/2003
 
 

Steve Stockman is the Presbyterian Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community with 88 students. He has just finished a book on U2 - Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2, is the poetic half of Stevenson and Samuel who have just released their debut album Gracenotes and he has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster (listen anytime of day or night @ www.bbc.co.uk/ni/religion/rhythmandsoul). He has his own web page - Rhythms of Redemption at http://stocki.ni.org. He also tries to spend some time with his wife Janice and daughters Caitlin and Jasmine. 

Waterboys fans are accustomed to drastic changes in musical stripe by main man Mike Scott from album to album.  The band’s previous Rock in a Hard Place was heralded as a powerful return to form; in its way, so is this minimalist effort.  On Universal Hall, Scott’s passion for Scottish and Irish folk sounds reemerges.  Prodigal violin wizard Steve Wickham is even back in the fold, which is a boon for fans of the band’s earthy, Irish-influenced material on Fisherman’s Blues and Room to Roam.  The album’s lone Scottish reel, “The Dance at the Crossroads,” gives Wickham his place directly in the spotlight.  Much of Universal Hall reflects Scott’s experience in the Findhorn Foundation’s spiritual seeker community; “E.B.O.L.” offers a hymn to “an eternal being of love” and “the light of the world.”  

Jeff Elbel 10/14/2003
 
 

 

   
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