[5 June 2014]
Ah, the Bunnymen. One of the great bands of the ‘80s and one of the best-named ever. But never quite as omnipotent and consistently brilliant as lead singer Ian McCulloch regularly used to claim. Which is why, when “Mac” is now declaring this album a “return to form”, we should be taking it with a large dose of salt. It’s worth recalling that, when their last album The Fountain, was released in 2009, McCulloch said it was the best album the band had ever made, excepting Ocean Rain. This statement was patently untrue.
Meteorites is actually the Bunnymen’s 12th studio album. But, apart from an honourable mention for 1997’s Evergreen (which contained the gorgeous single “Nothing Lasts Forever”), the typical rock fan wouldn’t look beyond their first five albums – all released in the ‘80s and containing at least two bona fide classics in Crocodiles and Ocean Rain – and would probably put them in the same ‘80s cast-off tray as, say, Simple Minds. All this amounts to say that, for a band like the Bunnymen so associated with the past (and a celebrated one, in their case), Meteorites is going to have to be pretty special to match the expectations generated by the statements of their vocalist and leader – not someone who has been associated with self-doubt over the years.
Where Meteorites is different is that Mac and his sole original Bunnymen collaborator (the rest of the band on the album are more recent recruits), the guitarist Will Sergeant, have enlisted Youth as producer, a figure with a prolific and creditable CV. But Youth at the controls turns out to be a mixed blessing here. His tendency to hurl the kitchen sink, with buckets of instrumentation and strings, is less sometimes a creator of a wall of sound than the manufacturer of a cluttered blur. The title track is a case in point: an epic opening in time-honoured Bunnymen style gives way to a chorus that tries to sustain the mood; but the coincidence of the over-the-top production and average melody leads to a let-down.
This pattern of high points followed by low points, often in the same song, unfortunately undermines the album as a whole. The third track “Constantinople” hits a beautiful groove early on, driven by Sergeant’s eastern rhythms which could make the track a third cousin to Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”. But McCulloch ought to be ashamed of the drudge of a chorus whose main theme seems to be that it’s, er, cold in Constantinople. His lyrics across the album are fairly uninspired, as if he’s made a conscious effort to drop the old Jim Morrison-type mystical imagery which occasionally sounded daft but often hit the heights.
As with the lyrics, one of Meteorites’ main weaknesses is that it contains too many tunes that can be filed under humdrum. In their halcyon days, one of the Bunnymen’s greatest attributes (and sometimes they failed, but you couldn’t fault them for trying) was that this was a band who shot for the stars. Sadly, songs like “Is This a Breakdown?” and “Explosions” (not helped by its mindlessly repetitive chorus) seem to be aiming nowhere in particular, clothed in their downbeat personality. Underwhelming performances like these are also a reminder of what a wonderful drummer Peter de Freitas was in the band’s ‘80s heyday, and how integral he was to them at their peak.
It would be unfair to paint the album in toto as a failure. “Lovers On the Run”, with its carpet of strings and a buoyant McCulloch vocal talismanic and effortless, is a warming echo of Ocean Rain’s splendour. The penultimate track, “Market Town”, easily the longest at more than seven minutes, is a stand-out: striking above all for some superb (again, Eastern-tinged) Sergeant guitar-playing and a wah-wah coda which could happily carry on for another five minutes in my view. It also underlines that Meteorites as a whole would have benefitted from more contributions from this enduringly excellent musician.
We all stand guilty of judging a band by their past. U2 are increasingly suffering from that syndrome, which makes say Bruce Springsteen’s continually impressive output all the more extraordinary. But, if like Ian McCulloch, you live by the sword then you must die by it. So don’t be misled by any of his outlandish public statements about Meteorites. Listen and wonder to the glory of “Stars Are Stars” and “The Killing Moon”; then download the best bits of Meteorites and give credit to Mac and Sergeant that they can still occasionally make music that conjures up what made the Bunnymen so unique.