In late 1985, Echo & The Bunnymen released a singles compilation, Songs To Learn & Sing. The album provided a glorious summary of the band’s fertile early years: anthemic choruses, haunting vocals, big hair. But Songs To Learn & Sing also included one new song, “Bring On The Dancing Horses”, whose shimmering but static synthesiser lines hinted at something else: creative paralysis. By 1985, the Bunnymen had nothing left to give. The trajectory of the band’s previous five years had been uphill and steep: having described 1984’s grand Ocean Rain as “the greatest album ever made”, they’d set themselves an impossibly high bar. Where could they go from there?
Veterans of Liverpool’s punk scene, The Bunnymen simultaneously appear of the time and outside it. In many ways, they are an exemplary post-punk band. They shared the same audience mobilised by Joy Division: earnest, overcoat-clad young men. Their sound – especially on the first two albums – fits in with the prevailing mood for monochrome and minimal. Listen to “Crocodiles” – with Will Sergeant’s choppy guitar lines, Les Pattinson’s cavernous bass and Pete De Freitas’s urgent drumming – and you have a snapshot of 1980. But, vocally and lyrically, Ian McCulloch is clearly elsewhere. As the song whips itself towards its climax, McCulloch’s voice assumes a devastating baritone reminiscent of Jim Morrison’s imposing howl. Elsewhere, the organ lines on “Do It Clean” and the noir-ish intro to “Read It In Books” show how deep The Doors’ influence ran. But which Doors are we talking about? The Bunnymen are not so interested in the songs per se – the 12-bar roadhouse blues of The Doors – but the atmosphere and mystery they conjure up.
“Show Of Strength”, the opening track from 1981’s Heaven Up Here, shows how tight Pattinson and De Freitas’ rhythm section has become. Their solidity gives Sergeant room to roam: on any given song – “With A Hip”, say – he moves through several different rhythmic styles. One minute, he’s playing rhythmic punk-funk, the next a needling guitar solo and then on to lyrical sequences of cascading notes. On “Turquoise Days”, he’s both Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd in the space of one song. There is a recorder – that least post-punk instrument – on “All My Colours”. At over six minutes, “Over The Wall” is another powerful showcase for the musicians, while McCulloch – “Out on the road coast to coast” – takes a trip into the void. “I can’t sleep at night,” he moans. “How I wish you’d hold me tight… Hold me tight/To my logical limit.”
By 1982, the Bunnymen had entered their imperial phase. Opening with two of their strongest singles – “The Cutter” and “Back Of Love” – Porcupine continues with singular confidence. There are moments of pure abstraction like “My White Devil” – McCulloch’s ode to Jacobean playwright John Webster – or the acoustic dramas of “Porcupine” that foreshadow “The Killing Moon”, the sitar-soaked urgency of “Heads Will Roll” and the torrential Television riffs that climb and soar across “Clay”. There are strings, too – a richening of the band’s palette in advance of Ocean Rain. And McCulloch? He’s in the thick of it, revelling in the band’s magical musical set-pieces. His baritone sets off the atmospheric intros to “My White Devil” and “Higher Hell”, dives into the chorus of “Back Of Love” and swoops through “Gods Will Be Gods”.
If Porcupine was the natural climax of their work so far, for Ocean Rain, they move forwards by stepping sideways. Aside from McCulloch’s croon – more Sinatra than Morrison, this time out – there’s very little that’s recognisable here from the first three albums. Instead of massive opening riffs, spartan production, tight rhythm section and dambursts of heavy noise, Ocean Rain is sumptuously psychedelic, string-dappled and borne aloft by acoustic guitars. That’s not to say it isn’t dramatic. Strings are in constant motion, darting and stabbing – playfully (“Silver”), thrillingly (“Nocturnal Me”), regally (“Ocean Rain”). For all its swing and polish, Ocean Rain is a mighty strange record. McCulloch’s lyrics veer from the quasi-religious (“Thorn Of Crowns”) to the sinister (“I’m the yo yo man/Always up and down”) and the eccentric (“You think you’re a vegetable/Never come out of the fridge”). The pace – frequently mid-tempo with Sergeant’s guitars in slow motion – makes the rare moments where the songs erupt all the more intense. A frosty pallor hangs over the proceedings. By the time “Ocean Rain” sails over the horizon like a stately galleon, the Bunnymen had created a unique, three-dimensional world. There would be other peaks – but nothing to match this peerless run of early albums.