yeatsI wondered how well the poems of Yeats would serve as pop song lyrics – especially a whole album’s worth – but Mike Scott carries it off superbly. Of course he’s done it before – he set “The Stolen Child” on the Fisherman’s Blues album – but this is a far more sustained effort: Scott says he’s written around 36 settings, 20 of which were used for a road show which premiered at Yeats’ own Abbey Theatre, Dublin in March 2010. The audiences responded well, so he recorded 14 of the songs for this album, released a year later. It works because Scott isn’t over-reverential about the texts, he’s prepared to adapt them as necessary to serve the song, changing rhyming schemes, repeating phrases and in some cases, mixing several poems together. But they stay essentially intact and the words are always audible, so if you listen with a Selected Poems edition in hand it can act as a great primer to the poetry. Scott’s doesn’t just stick to the early poems, his choice covers all periods, right up until “Politics”, the last lyric poem Yeats wrote in 1939.

Early Yeats, often based on romantic Irish folklore, has more often been used as the basis for lyrics. “The Song of Wandering Aengus” (from the 1899 collection The Wind Among the Reeds), set previously by Judy Collins, Donovan, Christy Moore and David Gray, among others, is both familiar and suitable for song:

I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Mike Scott’s version is based on a simple 16 bar chord sequence that repeats right through the song, and uses a regular meter, the instrumentation gradually building until it reaches the famous final couplet – and there follows a long flute solo by Sarah Allen on the same chord sequence that further intensifies the mood. (The same technique is used, as we have already seen, in the Waterboys song A Man is In Love).

However, Scott also tackles late Yeats, where the language is greatly simplified and more direct – the lively “Sweet Dancer” for instance, from 1939’s Last Poems, which describes the mental breakdown of the poet’s much younger lover, the actress Margot Ruddock. I especially like “Before the World Was Made”, a poem from 1929 (part of the sequence A Woman Young and Old) exploring self-identity, one of Yeats classic themes. With everything leading up to the haunting final two lines, it comes over as almost Dylanesque in this tiny setting.

I’m looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.