There have been considerable developments since The Psychedelic Furs last commanded a Manchester stage. Pandemic and other issues aside, the band have found it within themselves to birth an album’s worth of new material (after a gestation period of nearly three decades) in 2020’s Made Of Rain.
This evening’s crowd at the Manchester Academy, in its collective Sunday best, generates a crackle of expectation sufficiently voluble to drown out the muted new wave that marks the time between the departure of support act Pauline Murray and the dissipation of some half-hearted dry ice that marks the group’s appearance, ushered in from backstage by the guiding lights of pen torches. For a band for the most part in their 60s, they’re implausibly glamorous, for all the world resembling a louche soirée of Dorians, casting the audience – more visibly touched by time’s tactlessness – in the role of portraits.
At the centre of the circle is lead singer, Richard Butler, the inevitable shades cresting a ripped jacket and cravat, like some post-punk David Essex. There’s a lectern of lyrics close to hand which lends him something of the quality of a revivalist preacher, spitting out his words with a paradoxical showbiz charm. The years have not smoothed away the abrasion in his voice, its serrations cutting both against and with his words. It’s an instrument in itself, and one that strikes a match with Mars Williams’ extraordinary saxophone, ripping apart the rules of its more typical deployment as a reassuring signifier of unctuous constancy in pallid blue-eyed soul. Williams’ saxophone is more like something torn from a Lynchian Red Room. Wending between the two, mouthing his brother’s words, mirroring his moves and resembling no one so much as a displaced John Taylor kidnapped from Duran Duran and suffering from Stockholm Syndrome is bassist and Furs-constant, Tim Butler.
Between them and the rest of the group, they know what they’re doing, crafting order out of chaos and chaos out of even the prettiest of melodies. They’ve been playing the game for long enough to recognise the fans’ hunger for the familiar, so that when the new songs are unveiled they are set against the backdrop of those that barely scathed a Top 40.
The danger, of course, is that such unproven melodies will be found wanting, or – worse – merely competent. Of those with careers of comparable length, perhaps only Sparks have been able to return from their dry spells with a measure of their former vitality. Bouncing in front of Paul Garisto’s drum kit like a prize fighter in his corner, Butler certainly looks the part. Touchingly, in the main, he plays it, too, overcoming the odds to deliver tracks that don’t merely puppet former positions, but that, at their best, while not necessarily knock-out blows have something of the elegiac quality of the last of Bowie.
You’ll Be Mine taps into the same discordant energies as The Velvet Underground’s Black Angel’s Death Song, with its self-admonitory incantation that “every dog has had its day”, while The Wrong Train reaches even further back into pop’s pre-history, owing as large a debt to Anthony Newley as to Bowie himself, despairingly raging “Where the hell are all my friends?” before resignedly concluding that “in the end, there’s nothing left to say”.
You hope that, 30 years from now or sooner, Butler, the arch-contrarian, will prove himself wrong, and that The Psychedelic Furs, in parallel with their admirers, will continue to age with sardonic grace, continually railing against mortality, pop music and all points in between.
Main image: Matthew Reeve