In the 4 years since the release of their last studio album, the fairly well-received Meteorites, Echo & the Bunnymen have not stayed quiet. They have toured extensively, released a new live album, and outraged many fans when they announced they would be rescheduling a show in the Birmingham Symphony Hall due to it clashing with Liverpool playing in the Champions League Final, a statement they later reversed due to the backlash.
“I’m not doing this for anyone else. I’m doing it as it’s important to make the songs better. I have to do it.”
Now though, the Liverpudlian ensemble has offered what is essentially a greatest hits album of updated classic tracks, entitled The Stars, The Oceans and The Moon. Intended to be ‘re-imagined’ versions of previous releases, two brand new tracks, ‘The Somnambulist’ and ‘How Far?’, are also included. The endeavor of basically re-recording hit songs is an ambitious one – one that has seemingly alienated some fans before the album has even been released.
Speaking about the new versions of the classic songs, front-man and multi-instrumentalist Ian McCulloch said: “I’m not doing this for anyone else. I’m doing it as it’s important to make the songs better. I have to do it.” Improving a back catalogue of hit songs , the same songs that made the group an important component of the new-wave movement in the 1980s, is no straightforward task, especially by Mac’s own standards; ‘The Killing Moon’, the groups biggest hit, was described by Mac as the “greatest song ever written… one of the most perfect pieces of pop music”. A daring statement – so how can they possibly go about making it better? And how does this work for the rest of the collection?
The album commences with ‘Bring on the Dancing Horses’, first released as a single back in 1985, accompanying the release of their compilation album Songs to Learn and Sing. A popular song for Echo & the Bunnymen back in the mid-80s, the kaleidoscopic basis from the original is lost slightly with this version, which sounds very similar, other than some more upbeat, busier percussion.
Mac’s weathered, powerful vocals are showcased with slightly cleaner and more stripped-down production, and the contribution of guitarist Will Sergeant – the only other remaining member from the group’s original 1978 cast – is more distinguishable and more of a highlight than the original. The stripped-down production is a theme that carries effectively throughout the album. The approach that many artists adopt in rerecording a song by adding more (orchestras, overproduction, overdubbing etc.) is not taken, giving a delicate touch.
New tracks ‘The Somnambulist’, derived from the Modern Latin “somnambulus” meaning “sleepwalker”, and ‘How Far?’, are impressive, guitar-driven pieces which are quintessentially Echo & The Bunnymen, teasing for the next wholly original LP release and avoiding the album appearing like the group have hit creative drought.
For me, the highlight is the new version of ‘Lips Like Sugar’, one of my favourite Echo & the Bunnymen songs. This re-recording has a bit more punch to it than the original, but at the same time not over-doing it – the more mature vocals from McCulloch enhance this version well. The version of ‘Seven Seas’ is also an intriguing high point, a song that definitely translates very well when stripped back and re-imagined in this format
The album ends with their most ambitious task – making the Titanic ‘The Killing Moon’ sound better than the already hugely influential original. The bare-bones, emotional performance with added ‘strings and things’, as McCulloch describes it, is a comfortable testament to the 1984 hit – certainly a more soulful and deep re-imagining. However, to suggest that this makes the track ‘better’ is going a step slightly too far. Purists will always prefer the original, but this alternative should be viewed as a fitting tribute, furthering an appreciation for the original songwriting. It certainly grew on me from the first listen.
Overall, the re-imagining process for the tracks can be viewed as an appreciable success, and when coupled with the newly written tracks, make The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon an overall pleasant listen. However, as there is very little from this release that takes me aback and or makes me consider these releases as more than just ‘successful’ rerecordings, it’s not necessarily an ambitious and ground-breaking achievement. The release, nonetheless, does undeniably help the listener to further appreciate Echo & The Bunnymen’s back catalogue and how influential their songwriting was at their peak.