With three albums completed and released, a few hits and mostly a cult following, Echo and the Bunnymen could have gone the way of most bands—that is, nowhere fast. Instead, they managed to record a landmark album, the most critically-lauded of their career: the epic, sweeping and majestic Ocean Rain. Every aspect of this album found Echo at the peak of their artistic prowess. Will Sergeant’s guitars were at their most angularly evocative; Les Pattinson and Pete de Freitas were at their most hypnotically rhythmic; and Ian McCulloch was pure vocal and lyrical genius. The songs were both artistically challenging and had mass appeal.
The cover of Ocean Rain, as Spinal Tap would put it, could be none more blue, immediately setting a tone for the music within. Then you have Les and Pete each manning an oar, propelling the boat, as they do the band with their tight rhythm section. Then there’s Will, arms crossed, pensive, sitting in the middle of the boat. He is somewhere between the artistic vision of Ian and the musicianship of the other two, wanting to be adventurous, but also keeping it reined in. Finally, there’s Ian, leaning over the bow, one finger touching the surface of the water, ever inquisitive, trying to glean something from the blue.
The Bunnymen benefited from the help of Adam Peters, who arranged all the string performances as well as piano. The album begins with Sergeant’s Washburn guitar strums in the song “Silver,” but it is the strings which announce the oncoming sound of the new Echo. McCulloch’s lyrics are as obtuse as ever, making sense in only the rarest of occasions. “Nocturnal Me,” one of the most dramatic on the record, takes musical cues from the Soviet bloc, like some kind of marching Russian anthem. McCulloch takes after some of his musical heroes, selling the song with cabaret acting skill, just like Scott Walker and David Bowie. “Crystal Days,” though not released as a single, certainly could have been. It is one of the songs that bridges the gap between Ocean Rain and their self-titled record. “The Yo-Yo Man” continued their obsession with the Doors and Jim Morrison’s dark poetry with McCulloch singing about the cold wind blowing through his headstone.
“Thorn of Crowns” is decidedly Velvet Underground or Suicide influenced, though I have no idea what the whole stuttering vegetable medley is all about. McCulloch has never been yelpier or more dramatic. This oddity of a song, one of my favorites, leads way to my absolute favorite—and a favorite among most fans—the legendary “The Killing Moon.” This song, a tale of predestination wrapped in a love song, is undoubtedly one of the band’s finest moments. It carries enormous weight without any one piece of it becoming unwieldy. Sergeant’s guitars are muted strums or jangly notes when needed. Strings sweep delicately throughout, only coming to the surface to be noticed specifically. Timpani rolls at the end of the song play up the drama of oncoming finality. “The Killing Moon” is sheer perfection and it’s no wonder that it became such an influence on the film Donnie Darko. Oddly, however, director Richard Kelly wanted to use INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart” over the opening credits instead, which he does on the Director’s Cut version. But the themes in the song exactly mirror those of the film, making its last minute replacement a matter of kismet.
“Seven Seas,” the third single from the album, features a second nod to Bowie’s “Life on Mars.” “Thorn of Crowns” featured the quick lyric, “men on mars / April showers” and “Seven Seas” mentions “Hear the cavemen singing,” which is a recall to “Look at those cavemen go.” It’s also one more song with nautical references, enhancing the album’s loosely woven theme. Another brilliantly put together song follows in “My Kingdom,” a dark song to be sure, but entertaining. McCulloch overlaps the refrain “ten-a-penny” with the last potent lines,
You’re a between-the-lines person,
And your death is well overdue,
You suck the foot that kicks you
You kiss the hand that hits you.
The title track rounds out the album with the most nautically themed song on the record. This quiet and understated song uses a string arrangement that is more beautiful than any on the album, bookending it with the more tense “Silver” and its strings. Songs that surrounded the release of Echo’s fourth album were also stunners including the “All Night” version of “The Killing Moon” stretching the already almost six-minute track to over nine minutes. “Silver” also had an extended version called the “Tidal Wave” version. “Angels and Devils,” the b-side to “Silver” has been added as a bonus track to the Rhino reissue. This reissue also includes the Life at Brian’s EP, a series of live tracks recorded at Liverpool Cathedral, including their cover of “All You Need is Love,” which, just as John Lennon ad-libbed lyrics to “She Loves You,” Ian ad-libs lyrics to their own “Read it in Books,” the Beatles’ “Girl,” the requisite “She Loves You,” Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35,” Englebert Humperdinck’s “Release Me” and James Brown’s “Sex Machine.” Now that’s a medley.
Ocean Rain, even without the bonus tracks, was already a monumental and epic album, and the best from the Liverpool band. At this point, each member was firing on all cylinders. It was that utmost peak of perfection, a snapshot of a band on the precipice, on one side the journey past, on the other their uncertain future. They would have one more album full of hits in them, including “Lips Like Sugar,” a song that benefited from massive airplay but ultimately didn’t chart as high as “The Killing Moon.” Ocean Rain at its simplest interpretation is a stellar pop album with accessible songs and lush melodies. At its most complex, it is a densely layered and intricate masterpiece, carefully constructed and performed with songs that either have multiple or no meanings, but always captivating. If each band in the world could only pick one album to last for eternity, to show what they accomplished on this earth, Echo & the Bunnymen would simply have to pick Ocean Rain.