Any discussion of Echo and the Bunnymen must, at some point, acknowledge that music history has slighted the band. While other post-punk/new wave bands of the ‘80s—U2, the Cure, the Smiths, New Order—have been canonized through popular acknowledgment, artistic influence, or both, the Bunnymen have been left out of the discussion. Just why this is so is a mystery—and a tragedy. Perhaps more than any of these bands, Echo and the Bunnymen forged a completely new sound, combining the foreboding allure of the Doors with the shimmering jangle of the Byrds with the dark romance of a Tim Burton film. Though the Bunnymen released several great albums in the early and mid-‘80s, 1983’s Ocean Rain remains their most seminal work, a haunting album that is simultaneously eerie and beautiful. Stacked against the best albums of the eighties, Ocean Rain hovers near the top, an underappreciated masterpiece of spectral arrangements, stately production, and poetic songwriting. And though this album was but one in an impressive run, the Bunnymen remain largely obscure, a band whose legacy is relegated to the obligatory inclusion on new wave compilations.
So it’s no surprise, then, that Echo and the Bunnymen named their new album Siberia, for they’ve spent their career in musical exile, waiting for the world to finally appreciate their legacy. Sure, their career has included some misfortunes and missteps, including the death of original drummer Pete de Freitas, an album sans lead singer Ian McCulloch, and several lackluster comeback attempts that sounded timid to the point of being apologetic. Still, their contributions to the rock ‘n’ roll canon are undeniable, and for the first time since the late eighties, Echo and the Bunnymen sound focused. If fellow ‘80s veterans U2 were reapplying for the job of greatest rock band in the world several years ago, the Bunnymen are reapplying for the job of greatest unappreciated legends. And if Siberia isn’t great, it’s pretty damn good—much better than many of the often overrated comebacks from other post-punk/new wave icons.
Whereas 1999’s What Are You Going to Do with Your Life? and 2001’s Flowers sounded meek, Siberia sounds confident. On those albums, Ian McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant (the last two remaining original members) were desperately trying to reconcile rock ‘n’ roll with age, opting to write decidedly mature songs so restrained they nearly collapsed. Here, the songs sound fresh, as if the duo have recognized their strengths and aren’t afraid to use them. Album opener “Stormy Weather” sounds classic and modern at the same time, combining the melodic guitar of Sergeant with the tender brooding of McCulloch’s voice. More importantly, the song signals a return to classic Bunnymen: romantic lyrics, majestic crescendos, and dreamy swagger.
Other songs capture the frenetic energy of the early Bunnymen. “Of a Life” begins with a searing guitar lead and repeatedly explodes. Here, drummer Simon Finley displays the rare combination of grace and abandon that Pete de Freitas possessed on the band’s best albums. Moreover, one listen to this song and it’s evident why many have claimed that U2 lifted their sound from the Bunnymen. Sergeant alternates between melodic leads and repetitive textures, not so much playing the guitar as painting with it, carefully juxtaposing deliberate strokes with seemingly random flourishes. Just who influenced who is open to debate, but one thing is not: Sergeant is horribly underrated. In other songs, such as “Parthenon Drive” and “Sideways Eight”, his distinctive style simply bewilders. If Sergeant was afraid to unleash on the last few albums, he’s gotten over his fears.
Yet, if the Bunnymen sound young and invigorated, they have still matured. McCulloch no longer yelps like an angst-ridden miscreant; rather, his voice now possesses a tender fragility that hints at the loss that inevitably comes with time, and the wisdom that compensates for such loss. This is particularly evident in “All Because Of You Days”. The song is aching and gorgeous, an autumnal realization of the inability to recapture what has passed. Here McCulloch displays his trademark poetic brooding, ending the song with a bittersweet refrain of “Baby… maybe sometime / Maybe next time / We’ll say hi…” His voice, however, betrays the optimism of the lyrics, sounding delicate and slightly shattered. In the background, Sergeant bounces solitary notes off the heavens, leaving them to fall around the listener.
Still, there are those who will listen to Siberia and long for the old days of the Bunnymen. But if Echo and the Bunnymen aren’t the explosive band they were two decades ago, it’s only because the times have just now caught up to them. Will Sergeant can still write swirling, chiming guitar parts that make today’s neo-new-wave guitarists look like upstarts, and Ian McCulloch still possesses an inexplicable charisma rarely seen in a lead singer. Indeed, age has only fueled their sound and ambitions, and the Bunnymen are just what they should be in 2005: a band comfortable with their own glorious legacy—even if the rest of the world doesn’t know better.
// Notes from the Road
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