After successfully returning to the gist of what Echo and the Bunnymen made so cool in the mid- to late-eighties, Ian McCulloch or "Mac" has returned to a solo album, his first since the rather messy Mysterio in 1992. While his other partner in EATB, guitarist Will Sergeant, makes ambient tunes in his solo Glide project, the lead singer is intent on making a better solo effort. "There may be no Will, but there's a lot of willpower," McCulloch quips in the press kit. With the help of Coldplay singer Chris Martin and Johnny Buckland, McCulloch has created a grand pop rock album that wastes no time revving its engine.
The introductory "Love in Veins" features a bouncy backbeat and just enough crunchy guitars that make it quite catchy. And unlike some tracks McCulloch has done, the chorus is as strong as the verses. Lead guitarist Pete Bryne weaves a simple yet elegant magic for the bridge and solo, leaving enough space for McCulloch to pick up where he left off. Moving things down a notch or two with "Playgrounds and City Parks", McCulloch relives his early childhood while Ceri James plunks the piano. "You never win and you can't beat what's broken", he sings in his trademark style, sounding as fresh as he did two decades ago. There's a certain soulful feeling to the song as well, whether it's the bass line or the backing harmonies kept in the distance. Another asset McCulloch keeps it simple, knowing when to cut the fat from a song, resulting in few if any lengthy fading moments.
"Sliding" is another strong tune that features the Coldplay duo in fine form. Although it might not be the epic one anticipates given the combination, the simplicity and Beatles feeling (coming from the constant "la la la la la la" or the give and take harmonies concluding the tune) makes it a quick favorite. "Baby Hold On" has a distinctive Lou Reed or Velvet Underground bass line winding throughout as McCulloch repeats the title. The soul quotient is also held high here as it contains the "slow dance at the prom" swoon feeling without the waltz-like arrangement. The flow of the song is another asset, making the near four minutes seem like basically no time at all. "Arthur" is a mid-tempo track that is dreamy to a possible fault. "Live and die with me / What I wouldn't give now", he sings as Martin chips in with adorable harmonies.
The heart of the album lies in "Seasons", a song you don't want to end so you keep hitting replay just before it concludes. Not too highbrow but not exactly appealing to the current buying demographics, the song has a slight Beatles "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" quality to it before Bryne adds some basic riffs on top. If there's one flaw to the song, it might be the lack of some editing, allowing the "do do do do"s to go on just a tad too long. "Another Train" is probably the one curveball on the record. Coming off a bit like Travis or Cast, the song isn't as biting as it could be as it changes gears often. The lightweight feeling oozing from it makes the structure seem a bit odd throughout. Thankfully, the murky and dirty "High Wires" or "Some Kinda Love" (depending on what track listing you look at), is another catchy head-bobbing number with McCulloch doing his best impression of Britney Spears and her heavy panting during "Slave for You". The handclaps only add to the "good times" aspect of it.
"She Sings (All My Life)" returns to a similar sound but the overall vibe can't be denied. Working against his own harmony, McCulloch sounds as if he has saved the good stuff and left the Bunnymen with leftovers. The lyrics aren't the deepest, but if it ain't broke don't fix it. "Stake Your Claim" concludes the dazzling record with a glorious return to what made Mac so damn cool in the first place. It's his best solo record. Okay, he's only had three, but this is classic McCulloch in a contemporary model.