When I saw Echo & The Bunnymen perform their dusky 1984 masterpiece Ocean Rain with a full orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall a few years ago, a small groove was carved in my ear. This balanced tone between the small and the very, very big within the margins of Eighties pop songs was utterly provoking.
The determined melodies and lonesome vocals were now accompanied with flooding, majestic swathes of string the staggering drama compiled into an almost religious experience. With that same approach now being applied to reworkings of other bits of the Bunnymen catalogue, the first disc of Ian McCulloch's new double album is a brilliant place to find yourself as a fan.
This really does feel like a treat for any follower of the band, a collection of songs like ‘Nothing Ever Lasts Forever’ and ‘Bring On The Dancing Horses’ recorded at Union Chapel and re-imagined in orchestra-augmented Technicolor. That’s not to say this album is guilty of simply turning up all notches though, adding gimmickry and noise to pad out the live material, instead it uses the full weight of an orchestra cautiously and only at just the right moments – elsewhere the tracks, and this is really felt on ‘Lips Like Sugar’ - are almost a whisper. There’s been a lot of thought put into this, and stunningly produced by Killing Joke’s Youth, the nob-twiddler behind The Verve’s string-tastic Urban Hymns. He demonstrates with it a fundamental understanding of where the crease should be felt between honesty and magnificence, allowing the song to remain pop, but pushing the sound upwards into glorious mountains.
The second half of this record - dubbed Pro Patris Mori - is (kind of) new solo material, and a more delicate affair overall, but still loaded with swelling, sweet landscapes of string and menacing studio production to contrast the live recording of the first. It feels tragic but in a delightful way, like a decent Spiritualized album. There's some genuinely good new tracks here: 'Empty As A House' has a bright, innocent feel as observed from a lofty place in McCulloch's childhood, while 'Lift Me Up' has a more familiar Bunnymen sound with shuddering guitars and a sentimental chorus which could be drunkenly thrown out by Conor Obsert.
Title track 'Pro Patria Mori' remarkably shows that songwriting isn't just still possible from McCulloch, but can be interesting and saddled with quality, putting to best effect the 'old' sound with enough nods at the new to make your experience of the album seem rather complete.
Not to beat about the bush but most times somebody like this releases new material you're left politely dozing, a tenner out of pocket, secretly only playing it once or twice before going back to the classic works. That really isn't the case with Pro Patria Mori though; 'Fiery Flame' giving you another chance to roll around in now trademark dirty melodies which recall ‘Veronica’-era Elvis Costello verses a kind of dainty Glasvegas.
This isn't the best record McCulloch's put out and yet still career-defining, not only paying respect to Echo & The Bunnymen with 30 years of nostalgic contemplation into the re-workings, and new tracks that tip a cap to his influences - Bowie, Reed, etc - but also shows an intelligent, relevant British songsmith still worth listening to.
8Alex Lee Thomson's Score