With Ian McCulloch, you always get a double package. In their 80s prime, he and his band, Echo and the Bunnymen, produced some of indie-pop’s most sublime moments, and Mac the Mouth was always good for filling column inches with caustic barbs aimed at his peers. Of course, in his own mind at least, he was peerless and by God, the people were we going to hear about it. One half messianic genius, the other: self-publicising, Liverpudlian scally.
The decades have rolled by but the double offerings continue; Holy Ghosts, the latest release from McCulloch, contains not one but two albums. Disc one features live recordings of Bunnymen and McCulloch songs, while disc two is a new solo album, Pro Patria Mori (I’ll save you a google, it’s Latin for ‘to die for one’s country’).
The live recordings are billed as Orchestral Reworks from the Union Chapel and document one night in May 2012 when McCulloch performed with full orchestral backing, revisiting the extensive back-catalogue he accrued with the Bunnymen and as a solo artist.
Now, the well versed music devotees among us know that throwing in a string section can be a sure sign that an artist has reached a state of creative bankruptcy. Any crap sounds better with a bit of auld violin thrown in on top of it. I give you Symphony and Metallica and Bat Out of Hell as performed by Meatloaf and the Melbourne Symphonic Orchestra as examples of where the pairing of rock and classical is shorthand for ‘we didn’t know what else to do, so we booked a bleedin’ orchestra’.
But not so with the Union Chapel recordings. The string arrangements are tastefully done and add a regal air to some already majestic tunes. With moments of heart-stopping beauty, vintage Bunnymen is made to sparkle once more, like rediscovered treasures scattered amid the wreckage of a sunken ship. After all, Ian and co. were responsible for some of the most hauntingly beautiful songs committed to vinyl in the name of popular culture.
McCulloch is quoted as saying “When I sing ‘The Killing Moon’, I know there isn’t a band in the world who’s got a song anywhere near that”. We know he believed it then, that he believes it now, and hearing it here, born anew, you might just believe it too. It’s at moments like this that Mac hits his stride; his voice, like all fine things, has matured with age, and you can feel those years and experiences in its tone and timbre. The voice may waver betimes (‘Somewhere in My Dreams’), but overall, the kid’s still got a good set of pipes on him and can deliver an often captivating, intimate and immediate performance.
As you’d expect in a retrospective of a career spanning 35 years, there’s a lot of ground to be covered and for every song included, another has to be omitted. ‘Rescue’, ‘Bedbugs and Ballyhoo’, ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’, ‘All My Colours (Zimbo)’ and the closer ‘Lips Like Sugar’ are all present and accounted for, but other favourites such as ‘The Cutter’, ‘Seven Seas’ and ‘The Back of Love’ are omitted. It’s the same as it ever was, pandering to populist expectations was never really part of McCulloch’s game plan.
‘Bring on the Dances Horses’ opens proceedings and sets the tone; there’s to be no histrionic reworking of past masters here. The songs are augmented but not dominated by the new arrangements, and credit must also be given to Youth (ex-Killing Joke; producer of Primal Scream, the Verve, U2, et al) for producing this album. The recording is pristine. It’s rich but not saccharine, the temptation to guild the lily is avoided and it sounds all the better for it. Like Mac’s beloved barnet, it’s neat, tidy and well balanced but not overly manicured.
And so to disc two, Pro Patria Mori. This is McCulloch’s fourth solo studio album and first since 2003. The album starts off engagingly enough with ‘Different Trees’ (stylistically think Richard Hawley’s Truelove’s Gutter) and ‘Empty as a House’, which has a few nice hooks in it and continues along in a comfortable vein. It’s maybe just a little bit too comfy; and as a result, you get the feeling that Mac isn’t really pushing it.
At this stage of his career, we’re not going to get anything ground-breaking or witness a seismic shift in style, and should we expect as much? But if he isn’t feeling it, we aren’t going to be feeling it either.
Not that all it lost here. Three of the albums tracks have already featured on the live recordings of Union Chapel on disc one – ‘Pro Patria Mori’, ‘Watch Me Land’ and ‘Somewhere in My Dreams’. All in all, they are a decent trio of tunes. On the studio version of ‘Pro Patria Mori’, there’s a female backing vocalist whose high register nicely counterpoints McCulloch’s lower ranges, and maybe if McCulloch were keen to share the limelight like this more often, there’d be enough on Pro Patria Mori to whet the appetite for more new McCulloch material.
As it stands, there’s plenty on these two discs for fans and aficionados but maybe not so much for the uninitiated or the casually curious, which is a pity. Given the current interest in all things 80s, this man deserves a pedestal all to himself. Maybe this time, he shouldn’t have be the one to put himself on it.