[8 November 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
You just had a feeling it would eventually come to this with Echo & the Bunnymen.
First off, let’s get something out of the way, and yes, it’s going to hurt. Ian MCulloch’s voice is fried. Finished. Done. Over. Kaput. Fini. What was once one of the great instruments in rock music is no more. A voice that had no small influence on countless other musicians, including Bono, could now not even outsing the Edge. As far back as 2002’s Live in Liverpool, it was clear McCulloch’s voice was on the wane. Listening to him croak early tunes like “Rescue” was painful, so painful it was better not to listen at all. He just barely pulled it together for 2005’s Siberia, with lots of help from veteran producer Hugh Jones and some exceptional songs.
But from the first line of the first song on The Fountain, the complete degeneration is obvious. Smoked-out, hoarse, raw, stuffed-up… this is not a shadow of its former self, it’s another voice entirely. Only the definitive, carefully meted out phrasing is the same. Some voices improve with age, prime examples including McCulloch’s fellow post-punk survivors Morrissey and even Bernard Sumner. However, McCulloch’s voice has died. But this is so small death. It’s a big one, and it places a very big burden on The Fountain‘s other elements, namely the songwriting, Will Sergeant’s guitar playing, and the production. All three ultimately fall short.
For the most part, Sergeant seems content to produce undistinguished riffs with his E-bow. The high-pitched, herky-jerky tone is still there, but it’s not doing much that’s interesting, and the Eastern-flavored touches for which Sergeant is known are missing. The resulting leads are reminiscent of either Simple Minds or cut-rate Carlos Santana, depending on the song.
And what of the songs, anyway? Suffice it to say they’re “Bunnymen-esque”. The band has always been more about mystique and mood, romance and atmosphere, with tunes playing but a part in the entire package. Especially in the Bunnymen’s second go-round, which started with 1997’s Evergreen, McCulloch and Sergeant have concentrated on more focused, grand, often anthemic pop songs, and have cranked out some pretty good ones, too. At first listen, the lead single, “Think I Need It Too”, offers the rush of twinkling guitars, big chords, and energy you expect from the Bunnymen’s best. Then McCulloch starts singing, the chorus is weak, and it all starts to sound a bit silly… or pathetic.
The closest comparison to The Fountain would be 1987’s self-titled album, which toned down the deliberate artfulness in exchange for more straightforward, polished songs that would sound good on American college radio. I always thought that album was underrated, and while The Fountain often offers up a similar feel, the songs just aren’t as good. In fact, “Stormy Weather”, the lead single from Siberia, runs circles around anything on The Fountain. The relatively low-key, downcast “Forgotten Fields” is one highlight, McCulloch’s voice mercifully masked with distortion as he pouts his way through. “Life of 1,000 Crimes” is a suitably grandiose, sashaying bit of fun along the lines of “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo”. Then again, anyone who’s familiar with the latter will sense a band that’s trying too hard to do the things that made it popular in the first place.
To some extent, you can’t blame the Bunnymen for that. Siberia was an embarrassing commercial flop, failing to make the Top 75 in the UK, where the band was once a Top 20 staple. At such a point, though, an established band can take a couple different paths. It can accept it’s no longer a record-selling force and record whatever the hell it wants, knowing it still has a receptive, if small, core fan base and will sell plenty of tickets to shows. Or it can do whatever it feels is necessary to scrape back some sales, airplay, and commercial clout. Echo & the Bunnymen have clearly taken the latter route, and The Fountain is full of songs that are perfectly listenable, apart from that voice, and also fairly generic. You’ll find yourself mentally putting the chorus of, say, “Everlasting Neverendless” together with the verse of “Shroud of Turin”, or vice versa, unable to differentiate much between the two until you actually listen to each one.
Again, though, The Fountain adamantly offers the Worst of All Echo Worlds. McCulloch’s dismal voice would be easier to take with more interesting guitar work or songs. By the way, the new rhythm section has about as much character as an Andy Warhol film. (Not much.) Despite all these flaws, The Fountain might, just might have been able to get by were it not for the horrible production, credited to McCulloch, John McLaughlin, and Simon Perry. McLaughlin and Perry are successful pop-hits-for-hire producers in the UK, and they’ve clearly been employed to give the Bunnymen that extra boost back into the charts. This means making The Fountain as loud, compressed, and free of nuance as the latest Jonas Brothers record. You wonder if there’s a story behind why Sergeant isn’t credited, or why the release of The Fountain has been delayed for the better part of a year.
Yes, it’s come to this—and for some reason, maybe McCulloch’s infamous ego, it’s not really much of a surprise, though it is a disappointment. To avoid risking further embarrassment and degradation of their impressive legacy, McCulloch and Sergeant need to consider making The Fountain the final Echo & the Bunnymen album. Because on the evidence here, they don’t have another comeback in them.