After a four-year wait comes Echo & The Bunnymen’s 11th studio album, The Fountain. Since their reunion with 1997’s Evergreen, the legendary Liverpudlians have enjoyed a new lease of life, and 2005’s excellent Siberia was a high water mark in the band’s discography. But the 2009 Bunnymen line-up hasn’t exactly rekindled the glory of their psychedelic post-punk years in the early ’80s.
Maybe the long gap between records is due to Siberia not selling as well as it should have done. But The Fountain’s release was delayed from 2008, suggesting some problems in the studio. Indeed, the project was not initially intended to be a Bunnymen album at all. Singer Ian McCulloch started working on the songs with different musicians in 2007, before the other remaining band member guitarist Will Sergeant got involved.
Presumably the bright, poppy sound of this album from producer John McLaughlin (not the famous jazz-fusion guitarist, but a collaborator with the likes of Busted and 5ive) is an attempt to get more radio play. But it does not suit the off-beat atmospheric moodiness of the Bunnymen’s music. Its natural quirkiness seems to have been ironed out into a bland smoothness, though the songs are not strong enough anyway. Too often they feel like they’re going through the motions without any real urgency.
Current single Think I Need It Too is a reasonably catchy upbeat tune with a big chorus, but not one of the band’s more memorable songs. It fails to really grab your attention at the start of the album. As usual, McCulloch is trying to work out who he is and what he should be doing – “Must have forgotten something/How to forget how to be true” – though the mood for once is pretty optimistic.
Forgotten Fields sounds distressingly close to a Coldplay power ballad at times, which might come as little surprise given that Chris Martin appears on the album’s title track, and McCulloch mentored Coldplay’s album A Rush Of Blood To The Head. Do You Know Who I Am? is much better, featuring McCulloch’s trademark looping backing vocals on another identity-questioning track. The pedestrian-paced Shroud Of Turin may be tongue in cheek, but McCulloch’s messianic complex enters dodgy territory, while Life Of 1,000 Crimes’ syncopated rhythm has more of a dance beat.
The mellow title song soars melodically with strings attached but Everlasting Neverendless’ romantic sentiment is forgettable and Proxy’s hard-to-impress attitude – “Show me something that I’ve not seen before/And show me somewhere I’ve not been before” – is backed by unimpressive music.
Easily the best song on the album is Drivetime, a string-laden song with a driving rhythm ending with an unsettling echo that actually sounds like it was written because it had to be. The awfully punning Idolness Of Gods is a slow-moving track that goes nowhere and quietly fades away from the consciousness as the album tamely comes to an end.
As always, McCulloch’s lyrics are generally opaque, with a few striking phrases that stay in the mind, but as a singer he is at the top of his game, with his mature middle-aged vocal style much more sophisticated than when angrily young. Sergeant, one of the most distinctive guitarists around, seems strangely muted throughout, as if on autopilot during these largely underwhelming songs. After 30 years since their first incarnation, has the flowing fountain of creative inspiration finally run dry for the Bunnymen?