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Echo and the Bunnymen - What Are You Going To Do With Your Life?

I guess most people would agree that the Bunnymen peaked a long and hard 15 years ago with the deservedly lauded Porcupine and Ocean Rain albums. The supremely intense Porcupine especially made a lasting impression; it seemed to open up a wider view of the world: bigger and starker, colder but brighter. One of those records that changes your life, by being in the right place at the right time. It still sounds like a genius album.

I was an impressionable 15 year old back then. The Bunnymen's 1997 comeback album, the unengaging Evergreen, failed to cut through my 30-something horror of mortgages and middle-management tension headaches. If 'Evergreen' wasn't the album I was looking for then 'What Are You Going To Do With Your Life?' gets closer. The lead single, 'Rust', slipped by without creating an impression. The album, however, demanded a more careful listen. The opening title track, with its puissant time changes, is alert and thoughtful. "If I could see what you can see/See the sun still shining out of me/I'd be the boy I used to be" croons McCullogh as Will Sergeant effortlessly lets rip with a stunning guitar arpeggio. 'Rust' follows, and sounds better in context, but it's 'Baby Rain' that ups the stakes: "Still waiting for the voices that don't call my name/Had too many choices..." belies the uplifting tone of the score. "No pearls inside the oysters/Just the world/With no answers" it continues, updating the wide-eyed pessimism of Porcupine. Another stand-out is 'History Chimes', a slow-paced piano and vocal classic.

Mac's lyrics don't contain the layered subtexts and ironies familiar to Sisters fans, and he occasionally tends towards over-romantic mixed-metaphors - "I can feel the stars shooting through my heart like rain" from 'Rust' is the worst offender - but a better couplet, "Is this the world you wanted?/It seems under the soil", from 'History Chimes', paraphrases the album's major theme: that of getting where you wanted to be, but finding it's not what you expected. No solutions are offered, other than a wish to revisit the past: "Can we start again?" pleads 'When It All Blows Over'. But this is a theme that has been better expressed elsewhere (e.g. The Sundays' Medicine: I need a look at before/Although Heaven knows how I'll ever make my way back there"). They've lost the edge that they used to have and after the CD finishes the album's mood quickly fades, possibly because Mac's croon and the production are too smooth. Overall, though, 'What Are You Going To Do With Your Life?' exceeds expectations. A fine record.

Chris Sampson, June 1999

Postscript (December 1999)

Shortly after the review was written the Bunnymen were dropped by their label, London. The album had moderate early sales, but London failed to capitalise by releasing a second single; either the title track or the excellent Baby Rain, would have been potential hits. We've not been following the politics closely, but London Records appear to be in a mess. Their recent signing of Happy Mondays was, to say the least, highly eccentric: Mondays guitarist and main songwriter, Mark Day, was not part of the reformed band; Ryder was so mashed that he was using an autocue at the comeback gigs; as usual Bez just leaves me speechless. The comeback single - significantly a cover version - was dire, the gigs shambolic. Whoever was responsible for signing that band should be fired, immediately.

The sorry state of London Records is indicative of a wider malaise in the UK music industry. The industry is now dominated by high turnover, short lifetime products and this has had an effect on the type of music being signed. The manufactured boy/girl band market is dominant in the singles market (less so in the album charts), but it is the dance market, where any group reaching a second release is considered passé, that is most suited to current industry practices. Dance is successful in the album market through a series of cheap, nasty compilation albums ("Balearic Ibiffa '99 innit!"). Various Artist compilations don't feature in the mainstream UK album chart, so their level of success is difficult to judge; but take a look at the "new albums" section in Our Price on any given week.

This is the context in which the Sisters' on-going contract negotiations must be considered. The Sisters' "huge, in italics" ambitions demand long-term album sales. The artists achieving this: The Corrs, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, etc. are wholly removed from the Sisters' modus operandi. However, despite the Bunnymen's problems, there is some hope in the fact that male guitar bands of the second- and third-rate such as the Stereophonics and the Manics (Epic) do achieve some measure of lasting success. Arguably the only currently active band operating at the level and quality the Sisters aspire to are Radiohead (Parlophone). In a zeitgeist radiating pessimism there is some optimism to be drawn from their success achieved with a relatively uncompromising stance.

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