The current vogue for adding a new slant to old material is gathering pace, from unsatisfactory Beach Boys rehashes, to the thankfully aborted orchestral rethink of songs by The Smiths, Pete Tong rave classics, to whatever Peter Hook wants to revisit this week.
This 13th album by Echo & the Bunnymen is a best-of, with “strings as things” as lead singer Ian McCulloch puts it. He also states, “I’m not doing this for anyone else. I’m doing it as it’s important to me to make the songs better". Unfortunately, this is the point at which The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon falls down.
On paper the idea makes sense; when the Bunnymen were peacocking through the '80s they were adept at adding bombastic and ambitious synth work to their music, and synthesizers would naturally lend themselves well to orchestral rearrangements. But aside from the odd flourish of strings here and there, this is the band covering their old material, and despite McCulloch's belief that they're improving these tracks, on the whole they're not.
The main issue is with the vocal. If this was an album of new material - and this band are still capable of making decent albums (see 2014's Meteorites) - the change wouldn't be so prominent, but because familiarity of the songs naturally invokes memories of the handsome, arrogant young frontman who originally sung them, the tobacco-battered McCulloch of 2018 feels underwhelming.
"Bring On The Dancing Horses", a genuine all-time classic, has been given a robust, modern slant, but the soaring vocals of the original are replaced with McCulloch straining beyond his diminished range, and it’s not a pleasant thing to experience.
Elsewhere, the pretentious majesty of "Lips Like Sugar" is reinterpreted as lumpen Britpop circa 1998, and the reimagined "Rescue", a highlight from the classic Crocodiles, sees the confident swagger of the original replaced by annoying synth and strings which recall a zonked-out Coldplay.
There are positives, though. The two new songs, particularly the chest-pumping "How Far" are excellent; the rendition of Ocean Rain's "Angels and Devils" retains the brilliant pomp of the original; the string section/surf twang fusion on "Zimbo" is dramatic and effective; and you can do anything to "The Cutter" and it will survive.
Yet there are more missteps: "Stars Are Stars" sounds like an aborted attempt to channel TV's Peaky Blinders; their '90s comeback single "Nothing Lasts Forever" loses its celebratory edge; "Seven Seas" goes for a whiskey laden sea-shanty vibe, but fizzles out a little.
This record is built upon an interesting idea, and for all its frippery there is the odd spark of greatness here. But if you want to hear the band who, at their height, challenged U2 and Simple Minds as the kings of the '80s arena rock sound, revisit the original records.