Echo & the Bunnymen – Ocean Rain

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

Echo & the Bunnymen, for all the surprising and welcome attention they received after Donnie Darko, are not as celebrated as they should be. Their musicianship was outstanding, they wrote excellent songs, they had the benefit of a born showman out front, and their sense of style was stronger than most bands’. I don’t know why they are not held in the same regard as the Smiths, the Cure, New Order, or even Depeche Mode.

What I Think of This Album

It is difficult to deny that this album, packed with hits and excellent songs, is the pinnacle of the Bunnymen’s career. At the same time, the album lacks much of the defining sound of the classic era catalog, with diminished contributions from 75% of the band and a total liberation of the other 25%. Indeed, the furious drumming of Pete deFreitas is completely absent, Les Pattinson’s bass is only fitfully present, and Will Sergeant has to make the most of what space the orchestra leaves him. Meanwhile, Ian McCulloch blossoms into a fully id-driven persona, embodying whatever emotion he is feeling and communicating it with his complete being. This album is in considerable part Ian McCulloch and His 35 Piece Orchestra, which provides palatable, conventional arrangements (far removed from what Shankar delivered on Porcupine) that are nonetheless exhilarating and sumptuous. Almost every track here is excellent, every single one adorned with strings and often more. It sounds amazing, for sure, but it feels a little diluted. 

Imperial and imperious, the snow-swept “Nocturnal Me” is the soundtrack to an alternate universe’s Doctor Zhivago. The orchestra delivers a grand and portentous score and McCulloch delivers the verse lyrics with baroque theatricality, before darkly intoning “Take me internally / Forever yours, nocturnal me,” like a seductive Rasputin.

I can’t even imagine what the plan was for “Thorn of Crowns,” but this is the weirdest song the Bunnymen ever wrote. It is also one of their most compelling. McCulloch sounds literally crazed, reduced at one point to simply barking like a dog, and at other times moaning, grunting, yelping, whispering, and then of course, famously stuttering his way through a list of vegetables:  “C-c-c-cucumber / C-c-c-cabbage / C-c-c-cauliflower.” Sergeant adds some clanging sheet metal clanging riffs and the orchestra swells with percussion flourishes (are those church bells?) at the right moments.

Obviously, the deeply romantic “The Killing Moon” is the highlight of the album. Considered by most to be the best Bunnymen song (though my allegiance is with “The Cutter”), it is shrouded in mystery and berobed in elegance. The guitars have a Spanish/Eastern feel, and Pattinson offers up a brooding bass line. Needless to say, the strategic string interjections amplify the drama, not that the impassioned McCulloch needed the help while he croons and cries about fate, religiosity, the heavens, and kissing. In high school, I half-plagiarized the opening line of “The Killing Moon” for a poetry assignment. 

Speaking of theft, McCulloch queries “Where is the sense in stealing / Without the grace to be it?” and I can’t help with that. What I can help with is telling you that “Seven Seas” is a gargantuan song that deserved to be a hit. It is expertly constructed, bringing together the pop sounds and the orchestral trappings, most notably a refrain of descending church bell tones. I am a huge fan of the atonal guitar sounds in the intro just before the drums come in, and among the many evocative lyrics (some of which seem to concern Salem-era witch trials) that McCulloch sings is the opener “Stab a sorry heart / With your favorite finger,” which I have to say, I love. The jangly guitar part is delicious and the rhythm section comes to life. Velocity Girl covered this song, which sounds like a fool’s errand, but actually turned out well.

I would not be surprised if Tim Booth of James studied the title track obsessively prior to the Laid sessions. A dark horse epic tucked away at the end of the album, “Ocean Rain” is drop dead beautiful and built from the ground up with tremendous artistry and skill, as it deliberately progresses from a stark, haunting opening to a moving, melodious ballad. McCulloch shines with his most subtle and tender singing . . . ever, and the strings are as lovely as any I have ever heard.

I swear that the keyboard intro of “My Kingdom” reminds me of Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” (which came later, so I guess I have it backwards). This is another unusual song, with heavy biblical suggestions, a sweetly intricate guitar part from Sergeant (and then a stinging lead), and outstanding drumming from deFreitas. I very much approve of McCulloch’s non-sequitur reference to “Boney Maronie” (covered by John Lennon, Ritchie Valens, Billy Haley, the Who, and Dick Dale). “Crystal Days” is likewise very strange – deceptively so. The melody and orchestration sweeten the proceedings, but Sergeant offers up a bizarre lead part punctuated by industrial sounding percussion during an instrumental bridge. This one of the few songs with an obvious contribution from Pattinson.

It says something about the strength of the album that the excellent single “Silver,” which leans heavily pop (though lushly augmented with strings), is actually one of the less interesting songs here. Sergeant does a nice job (playing a sitar-like bit at one point), and McCulloch pursues grandeur with not a hint of shame (which is the only way to do it, I suppose). Spanish guitars introduce the blood-curdling but mannered “The Yo-Yo Man,” which is garnished with what I can only describe as tubular sound effects, creepy piano, horror movie strings, and some disturbing work from Sergeant. It is a forgettable deep cut, but when you hear it, you can’t help but take notice. 

The production credits are opaque (“produced by all concerned”) but it’s worth noting that Gil Norton (Pixies, Catherine Wheel, Belly, Throwing Muses, the Longpigs) had a hand in the engineering and mixing, if not more.

My disc adds eight bonus tracks. One is good B-side “Angels and Devils,” which sports a welcome insistence courtesy of deFreitas. Five more are tracks from the Life At Brian’s sessions, which are related to some sort of television series. Of these five, one is a Beatles cover, two are versions of album tracks, and the other two are versions of Crocodiles songs.

The cover of “All You Need Is Love” works much better than it has any right to. The orchestra does not recreate the original arrangement, instead stripping all the joy out of it; I would have believed it if Shankar had played a role in this, as it hearkens back to the Eastern sounds of his work on Porcupine. Notably, there is no brass in the arrangement, and Sergeant plays a harpsichord. Consequently, the song takes on an organic grey tinge that stops just short of irony. McCulloch sounds like he is having a blast, deadpanning the vocals with a louche casualness, and offering a delightful variety of lyrical ad libs at the end, quoting the Bunnymen’s own “Read It In Books” and then moving on to classics like “She Loves You,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” “Sex Machine” and . . . Englebert Humperdink’s “Please Release Me.” 

The live version of “The Killing Moon” is pleasantly wooly (still with strings and woodwinds, to be sure), featuring alternate lyrics, and “Silver” has a similarly shaggy quality. “Villiers Terrace” gets a ‘60s spy movie polyryhythmic percussion intro, which is strange enough, but then the jazzy horns come in to prove shit can always get weirder. Once the real song begins, it’s a skeletal version, though the percussion from deFreitas is impressive; I can do without the sax. “Stars Are Stars” is subdued and restrained.

The remaining two bonus tracks are live selections from the A Crystal Day live television special. “My Kingdom” is good, but maybe a little sloppy. I do like how Pattinson’s bass cuts through the mix. “Ocean Rain” develops more quickly in this live version, but is no less gorgeous.

The Best Thing About This Album

The band’s ability to execute its vision.

Release Date

May, 1984

The Cover Art

Not as good as Crocodiles or Porcupine, but still really damn good. Brian Griffin and Martyn Atkins collaborate once again, this time with Carnglaze Caverns as the setting.

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