Echo & the Bunnymen – Porcupine

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

I always forget that Echo and the Bunnymen formed in 1978. Crocodiles was not released until 1980, so I feel somewhat justified in thinking of the foursome as an iconically ‘80s band. The Liverpudlian music scene then was rather incestuous, with the current and future members of Echo and the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, Wah!, and the Wild Swans all playing in each others’ bands. The (disputed) legend of the origin of the Bunnymen’s name is that prior to recruiting rich kid and Trinidadian Pete deFreitas for the drummer slot, the founding trio relied on a drum machine, and they named it Echo. While on the first two albums they went with “and” in the band name, as of Porcupine, they switched to the ampersand. And on Ocean Rain, they capitalized “The” for the first obvious time, which I think is stupid and refuse to honor.

What I Think of This Album

This is the Bunnymen album that is closest to my heart, though I must concede that, at least in some ways, it is not the best Bunnymen album. The qualification derives from the reality that the question of which is the best Bunnymen album is a difficult one. Am I biased because the first two tracks are absolute classics? In fact, is it not the case that I would love any album that contained “The Cutter”? Yes and yes. “The Cutter” is possibly the best Bunnymen song ever and “The Back of Love” almost reaches the same heights. And if that had been all to Porcupine, it would still be worth owning. But there are other very strong tunes here, with Ian McCulloch fully embracing his swooping, dramatic, almost histrionic presentation and the band – with the critical assistance of Shankar on strings – broadening their palate with aplomb. The second half of the album is admittedly weaker, as it meanders a bit and the songs lack a sense of purpose, but there isn’t a single bad or unlistenable song here.

The majesty of “The Cutter” cannot be overstated. The string arrangements by Shankar, in this song in particular, are gorgeous and heart-swelling. I will say the strings sound VERY much to me to be keyboard emulations, but there is no keyboard credit in the liner notes, so I don’t know. In any event, Shankar provides the Indian-influenced intro as well as embellishments in the first half of the song, but his most critical contribution comes in the second part, when he elevates the song into the stratosphere with an epic sweep of strings that redefines grandiosity and then surpasses this trick at the end. Complementing this emotional crescendo is McCulloch, who spends much of the song giving an impassioned, inspired performance before dropping into a more subdued mode right when the strings take over, and then amping things up again towards the end with a series of odd questions posed with striking fervor: “Am I the happy loss? / Will I still recoil / When the skin is lost? / Am I the worthy cross? / Will I still be soiled / When the dirt is off?” Les Pattinson’s bass is the song’s primary driver, with Pete deFreitas pounding away; Will Sergeant wisely takes a backseat, throwing in unusual and exciting guitar accents.

Pattinson also dominates “The Back of Love” with a repetitive rapid riff on the verses, and this time Sergeant plays a more prominent role with various tones and patterns. Shankar’s strings are more conventionally pretty, generally trading the breathtaking approach of “The Cutter” for more romantic shadings (except for the Bernard Herrmann Psycho homage partway through). McCulloch again yelps, declaims, and croons his way through a dark and unsettling set of lyrics, and DeFreitas must have been exhausted by the end of this demanding piece. The bridge is particularly florid and strange.

“My White Devil” has ominous string creaks and weird percussion accents (and if you ask me, a fucking keyboard), and is a pleasantly spooky track, and when the percussion speeds up to an almost comical degree, it’s pretty fun. It is inspired by the works of Elizabethan playwright John Webster. The foreboding continues on lush “Clay,” with a great vocal from McCulloch and additional contributions from Shankar. Things get even stranger, though, on the epic title track, which is basically the soundtrack to a stormy weekend in a drafty Gothic mansion on a seaside cliff. You get no respite on “Heads Will Roll” (as you probably could have guessed from the title). This track is of a piece with its predecessors, with McCulloch catastrophizing from his fainting couch, Shankar doling out the droney strings, and deFreitas going insane behind the kit. 

You can skip “Ripeness,” which never matures, and while “Higher Hell” seeks to approximate the mood and feel of the first half of the album, it doesn’t quite ascend to those levels (though Sergeant does some cool stuff). “Gods Will Be Gods” is fine – competently played and displaying good sonics – and of these final songs, it is the one that most closely recaptures some of the magic of the first side. The percussion and guitar sounds of “In Bluer Skies” are interesting, and this track too is worth repeated listens.

Ian Broudie (the Lightning Seeds) produced the album.

My disc adds seven bonus tracks: B-side “Fuel,” alternate versions of five album tracks, and the “Never Stop (Discotheque)” single. “Never Stop” is fantastic, with deFreitas’s polyrhythmic skills on display and Sergeant shearing off some fun twangy riffs, as well as another excellent McCulloch vocal.

The Best Thing About This Album

“The Cutter.” In no way should you spare us “The Cutter.”

Release Date

February, 1983

The Cover Art

Another fantastic shot. This is also my favorite Echo album cover, again the work of Martyn Atkins and Brian Griffin. The green font is amazing. The location is Iceland, in case you were wondering

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