Whether or not you agree with Ian McCulloch’s assessment that Echo and the Bunnymen were, along with New Order, one of the two most important bands of the ’80s — or ever, for that matter — you have to give the dour Liverpudlians credit for storming the “me decade” with a visceral neo-psych sound that still holds up its end of the bargain a quarter century on. Albeit infused with gauzy sentimentalism and a soft bite, what the Bunnymen are now is not terribly far from what they were then, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.
The raspy croon, seething and swelling, is unmistakably McCulloch’s as it swirls among a heavy dose of Will Sergeant’s Velvets-inspired guitar on Siberia’s first track and lead single, “Stormy Weather.” The sound is classic Echo. It’s the best song on a solid album, and it’s destined for future Bunnymen retrospectives. “All Because of You Days” is a long fuse that rumbles toward a bright and unfulfilling chorus, and “In the Margins” shakes the status quo, recalling one of David Bowie’s favored blueprints with lock-step bass, a buzzing E-bow guitar and synth traces wafting in and out of earshot. “Parthenon Drive” cleaves a little too closely to “Bring on the Dancing Horses” to do anyone much good. Had they claimed it an unreleased b-side from the Ocean Rain sessions, you would be hard pressed to find reason to doubt them. McCulloch’s gravelly cords sound a hair from collapse during “Of a Life.” The song is suffused with grit and makes it clear that these Bunnymen have a keen awareness regarding their legacy, as the chorus pleads: “I want a song to learn and sing of a life requited.”
The problem here is that we’re as attuned to the Bunnymen’s past as they are, and although Siberia recaptures much of their overcast glory, it’s never anything other than Echo-by-numbers. It’s better than 1999’s What Are You Going to Do With Your Life but arguably a step back from the calm success of McCulloch’s ’03 solo release, Slideling, wherein the songs and production played to his middle-aged placidity instead of raging hopelessly against it.
No doubt Siberia will be welcomed by those who have been holding the reverberations of “Lips Like Sugar” in their hearts since Irangate, but if you know the band that well you know they’ve done all this before, and better, and more than a few times around. In that, Siberia is as much a joy as a stolid letdown and ultimately has the feeling of a dead-end street, making you wonder where McCulloch and Sergeant will go from here and why they haven’t been there already.