Echo & the Bunnymen honor their early work.
It’s rare for an artist to attempt a do-over of their previous material and rarer still for those efforts to pay off. Suicidal Tendencies re-recorded all the songs from their debut self-titled LP a decade after its release and only seemed to insult its memory. Mike Doughty re-recorded some of Soul Coughing’s material on his 2013 record Circles and though it wasn’t bad, it really only fanned the flames of desire for what we loved about the originals. Somehow, against all odds, Echo & the Bunnymen have pulled off something very, very special on The Stars, the Oceans and the Moon. It’s been over 30 years since the band debuted Ocean Rain in 1984 and despite the ups and downs, changes and losses that befall any life in three decades, the band has basically kept it together and produced an amazing revitalization of their classic material.
There was, of course, nothing wrong with the originals. This effort runs the risk of angering fans of the original work by attempting reinterpretation it or to just polish it up with all the technological advances that a 2018 studio has to offer. Purists would argue, as they always do, that it’s the mistakes, nuances and lack of experience that made those early records what they were. And yet somehow, as you listen to the 13 collected songs of this record and two new original tracks, it becomes very apparent that somehow they sidestepped any notion of desecration or disrespect. The re-recordings breathe new life into the songs and indeed introduce them to a new generation that can learn to love them on the merits of their strong songwriting and sound without requiring the scaffolding of 30 years of maturity and successful singles.
“The Somnambulist” and “How Far?” are the original tracks on an album of almost entirely reworks of the band’s most popular material. As a consequence, they’re not going to get the attention and focus they deserve. But they are great songs in their own right and being the outliers on the album, these songs are an excellent representation of the modern sound of Echo & the Bunnymen. They’re a relaxed, confident stroll through post-punk and rock ‘n’ roll which somehow manage to suggest the sound of the ‘90s without needing to drop wholeheartedly into reverb, feedback and wall of noise guitar riffs. The signature high-pitched guitar wail and chorus line are here but as with much of the band’s material, both songs are anchored in the shimmer of sound contrasted with the now smoky voice of Ian McCulloch. In a sense they do serve a purpose here by setting a benchmark by which the remaking of all the rest of the tracks will be measured. You soon find out that “Bring on the Dancing Horses” and “Lips Like Sugar” live up to that standard and then some.
Let’s face it, McCulloch isn’t as young as he used to be and his vocals don’t hold the unwavering notes they did earlier in his career. You might interpret that as meaning the new revisions are lesser, but instead it comes off sounding like honesty and vulnerability. Both “Seven Seas” and “Rust” show this in great form. His vocals are gripping and bring a depth to his songwriting that was not so apparent in the more washed out and relatively muffled originals.
The album closes appropriately on what is perhaps the band’s biggest single and in keeping with the spirit of the risks taken here, it may be the biggest departure and greatest risk of all. “The Killing Moon” shares a melody with its original form, but little else. It’s McCulloch alone in a room with nothing other than a piano line and slowly resolving strings to lend it a mounting weight. Much like Maxence Cyrin doing the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” or Vincent Andreotti’s version of Nine Inch Nails’ “The Hand that Feeds,” this version of the track takes what could have been interpreted as the expression of dark feelings and betrays the more mature and realized aspect of those emotions years after retrospect. Anger and heartbreak both belie an underlying vulnerability, and on The Stars, the Oceans and the Moon Echo & the Bunnymen honor their early work by bringing it to the light of a more mature and refined musical perspective.