In the Psychedelic Furs’ early days, the band and critics alike described their sound as “beautiful chaos”. It was the swirling, barely-hinged yet strangely elegant result of a two-guitar, six-man lineup of musicians whose sense of style and attitude were far more polished than their technical aptitude. That was 40 years ago.
By the time of the Furs’ presumed final album, World Outside, in 1991, the beauty was still very much there, but much of the chaos had gone, whittled away by synthesizers, success, even the band’s maturity. It is no small revelation, then, that Made of Rain, the first new Psychedelic Furs album in 29 years, begins with the band’s most powerful, convincing conjuring of that beautiful chaos since those early days.
“The Boy That Invented Rock and Roll” is just as great as its title, a teetering, throbbing tornado of sound that features pretty little saxophone licks and a lush, expansive chorus almost in spite of itself. Richard Butler delivers sharp, sardonic couplets in his signature, David Bowie-meets-John Lydon rasp as if he has done nothing else during the three-decade interim. When he sings of “the suicidal, drunken dance / the sense that things will fall apart”, the words come across as pure prophecy from a man who has been around long enough to know his omens. The song is not just a perfect soundtrack to 2020. A bona fide Furs classic, it also bests expectations for Made of Rain all by itself.
That is a crucial point, because the ensuing ten songs are, perhaps inevitably, an anticlimax. As if they have poured all the beautiful chaos they could muster into the one brilliant track; the Furs fall back to catch their breath and never really recover. That is not to say the rest of Made of Rain is poor. It’s not, and it contains at least one additional near-classic. But it falls into a type of rut that only long-lived bands can travel: Its primary purpose seems to be justifying its existence with an almost obsessive show of confidence. Which is a fancy way of saying it tries a bit too hard for its good.
Made of Rain was co-produced by Richard Fortus, who was Richard and bass-playing brother Tim’s cohort in their post-Furs project Love Spit Love as well as the subsequently reunited Furs circa 2000. Fortus has, for the last 18 years, been a member of Guns N’ Roses, and while he does not take Made of Rain anywhere near a hard rock path, he has no aversion to the attendant bombast. Too often, the album eases into the reflective, midtempo mood that seems to be Richard Butler’s default in everything he’s done since about 1989. Even when it does so, it still sounds big and pronounced.
No amount of reverb, backward loops, or other studio effects is too much. This approach lends the dreamy “This’ll Never Be Like Love” a cavernous Phil Spector-like feel, which works. But it nearly drowns the otherwise jangly strummer “Hide the Medicine” and a ballad like “Turn Your Back on Me”. Some of Made of Rain‘s maximalist feel may be down to the lineup; sax player Mars Williams and drummer Paul Garisto also played on Midnight to Midnight, the Furs’ most bombastic album.
As for that other near-classic, it’s “Come All Ye Faithful”. With a madcap, circusy arrangement and brilliantly devious bassline from Tim Butler, it sounds at first like a kiss-off to an ex-lover but turns out to be directed at large-living hypocrites. Richard Butler has always had a penchant for delivering scathing lines while sounding positively gleeful about it. He is practically bragging that “When I said I loved you, and I lied / I never really loved you, I was laughing at you all the time.” It’s a truly punk-rock kind of fun.
Still, if Made of Rain leaves one with the impression something is missing, that’s because something is. This is the first Psychedelic Furs release that has not featured guitarist John Ashton, who parted ways with the Butlers over a decade ago amid some acrimony. Ashton provided much of the Furs’ detail and texture, not to mention many of the hooks, and his absence prevents Maid of Rain from being an unqualified triumph. His replacement, the long-serving Rich Good, mostly lingers in the background, sounding as if he is trying to play what he thinks Ashton would. It’s an honorable endeavor, and he nails Ashton’s tense staccatos on the otherwise tedious “Don’t Believe”, but it’s hardly revelatory.
It is great to see the Psychedelic Furs deliver some worthy new material after three decades of touring their back catalog. Even if Made of Rain ultimately exists on a weird sort of island that is too removed from the band’s previous history, just hearing the way Richard Butler enunciates a phrase like “the ticking of the time” is worth the endeavor. Sometimes a little beautiful chaos goes a long way.