Sometime in January, the number-crunchers of the IFPI began to see something unprecedented in their datafeeds.
For the first time since Napster, music revenue had stopped freefalling. Less a parabolic upswing than a feeble flutter from a grim flatline, the line on the graph has nonetheless begun to move upwards. Didn’t matter that the stats included publishing revenue for the first time, as well as sales, it was time to break out the bubbly.
Cue the bothersome adverbs of PR mailouts announcing a slew of comeback albums. Bowie, Suede, Primal Scream. The time-biding grande dames of popular music’s legacy emerge, dazed, from home studios and Victorian townhouses, as if coded to awaken once more when the volume of units shifted per month were to arise and thrive. The Once and Future Queens.
What is surprising about Ian McCulloch‘s addition to the list, is that his album (a double CD affair) is worthwhile listening. Disc one consists of orchestral reworkings of Echo and the Bunnymen songs at the Union Chapel last year (well, except for three of the new solo tracks). The second disc is the solo album proper.
That a cult figure should have the clout to fill the Union Chapel is unsurprising. That the versions of Bunnymen songs he performs at the gig are delivered in such a compelling manner, is a bit of a (pleasant) shock.
Mac’s voice has aged with the same sweet languid complexity as an oak-barelled Sauternes. Some voices do, gaining depth of experience, developing wider emotional empathy, changing timbre as the vocal chords go as flaccid and saggy with age as the rest of the flesh. What is unusual though, is any gain in vocal range. Yet McCullough transposes the chorus of ‘Bring on the Dancing Horses’ up a notch from the original in his live version of the song, in addition to the aforementioned symptoms of the maturing voice.
For a singer whose reputation as the ‘Liverpool Lip’ was based on a gobby personality and an interview persona that almost certainly formed part of the model for the ever-entertaining Noel Gallagher, such maturity is welcome (although the puerile entertainment value of a classic Mac anecdote is undoubted. That of the draconian manager, the Little Chef pitstop and the ’27-second shite’ gave a scatalogical frisson to many a Smash Hits reader. That the manager in question was a pre-KLF Bill Drummond is all part of the legend).
It’s also fair to say that on Echo and the Bunnymen records, there was always a touch of the teenage whine about Mac’s vocals. That’s gone, the thwarted entitlement of youth replaced by experience, and acres better for it.
Applying an orchestral treatment to the Echo and the Bunnymen songs is at times an embellishment too far though, on occasion lending an air of ClassicFM soundbed/hotel lobby stringwashiness to tracks which were made to be sharpened by Will Sargent’s clanging guitar (or Ravi Shankar’s sitar, guesting on the Porcupine album).
‘The Killing Moon’ needs bite, but instead disappears into a pastiche so Bond-ish that the entrance of ol’ Dame Leatherlungs singing ‘SkyFOWWWW, CrumBOWWW’ would hardly surprise. The bombastic treatment of such an enigmatic opus is, alas, a monstruous carbuncle on the face of an old friend.
Overall though, the Union Chapel performance is an unexpected joy. The tempo of the early material is slower, which doesn’t always deliver the gravitas intended, and the ditching of the orchestra in favour of bluesy guitar for ‘Bedbugs and Ballyhoo’ is welcome indeed. Nothing though, quite prepares the listener for the acoustic guitar-dominated version of ‘Lips Like Sugar’, closing the disc with a vocal performance that cajoles, whispers, intones and carouses at a level of emotional expression that is flabbergasting.
From Mac the Mouth?! Joyous indeed.
solo songs is
more about the
than the artistically
Mac’s new tracks are slightly less rewarding, reminding somewhat of the self-referential homely meanderings of a Ringo Starr solo LP. ‘Babies laugh, Babies Cry/Babies Live, Babies Die’ gives a fair impression of the faux-naif ‘profundity’ on offer on the lyrics sheet (‘Different Trees’). That might be expected from a man who penned lines about ‘cucumber, cabbage, cauliflower‘ in his youth (from ‘Thorn of Crowns’), but is a signpost that this collection of solo songs is more about the unchallenging domestic than the artistically flamboyant.
‘Me and David Bowie’ induces an inward cringe, a ditty just a little too suggestive of the vanity project – a paean to Bowie’s artful way of smoking a cigarette or wearing a coat and the influence of such elegance on the young McCullough. A lot of the songs on the disc are narrated in the first person, and the production (strings, bells, whistles, kitchen sink) suggest a certain number of ‘just do it like Broudie used to, OK?’ conversations over an ash-flecked mixing console.
Where the production deviates from the harmonic strings and simple structures, it has the most impact. The middle-eight of ‘Me and David Bowie’ is appropriately off-kilter and Velvet Underground-esque, whilst the vocal overdubs on the outro of ‘Somewhere in my Dreams’ add a satisfying complexity.
But in ‘Pro Patria Mori’, McCullouch has crafted an anthem of quality. A song of intriguing ambivalence, concerning war and military service but steering clear of any moral highground. Wilfred Owens‘ lines : ‘Dulce et decorum est Pro Patria Mori’ give McCullough a phrase to really get his lungs around, which he duly does on both discs of the set. Or we assume the source is Wilfred Owen, who prefaced the phrase with ‘The old lie’. McCullough could just as easily be quoting Horace’s original, which offers no such cynicism to the idea of dying for one’s country.
Nevertheless, whether the reading comes from Owen, Horace, or indeed The Damned, ‘Pro Patria Mori’is the obvious single on a fine double album.
Sweet it indeed is.
Holy Ghosts is released on April 22nd via Edsel RecordsEdsel Records
Echo & The Bunnymen & James Tour
13th – Glasgow
15th – Newcastle Academy
16th – Sheffield Academy
17th – Bristol
19th – London Brixton Academy
20th – London Brixton Academy
22nd – Bournemouth O2 Academy
23rd – Leeds Academy
25th – Birmingham Academy
26th – Manchester Academy