PITCHFORK: The Sisters of Mercy “Floodland” (9.1 Rating)

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today we revisit a 1987 goth rock masterpiece, a dramatic and winkingly macabre record from the mind of a man who thought it was all sort of a joke.


The Sisters of Mercy were pure evil right from the jump. Their sound was so identifiable, so simple and evocative, that it formed its own strand in the DNA of goth music. After a run of increasingly well-crafted singles and EPs, the Leeds band’s 1985 full-length debut, First and Last and Always, crystallized this identity: a drum machine that plinked like icicles dripping on a cave floor; warped guitar riffs that seemed beamed in from ’60s psychedelic rock; menacing basslines that were as memorable as the guitar parts; lyrics of alienation sung in a vampiric yawn that could seduce and mock and yearn.

Where do you go next? Fire the whole band. Bring on Meat Loaf’s songwriter and the guitarist who shredded on “Addicted to Love.” Incorporate a 40-person choir and a climactic sax solo. Write a piano ballad about childhood. Treat the drum machine so that it sounds like Rocky hitting the punching bag. Shoot an expensive video in the desert so that the Sisters of Mercy look like rock gods, wandering the earth in search of a sweeping vista to suit their newfound ambition.

On paper, Floodland should be a polarizing cautionary tale: an act of hubris that rejects the humble, visionary qualities that endeared a loyal audience to an underground, artsy group of misfits. Instead, it’s the masterpiece that defines them. Andrew Eldritch, the band’s sole remaining member by the time of its release in the fall of 1987, was driving himself nuts poring over demos alone in his adopted home of Hamburg. Driven by a burning desire to prove himself—and to propel his story beyond his old friends and new nemeses—this album had to be a grand gesture. Something undeniable.

An auspicious turning point for a band that started as a joke. “A very, very, very, dry joke,” Eldritch clarified to an interviewer in the early ’80s. His idea back then was to embrace the most ridiculous aspects of strung-out rock showmanship and marry them to music so exasperatingly bleak that it formed a meta-commentary on making art in an inhospitable world. The sense of humor came through their sulking covers of unlikely songs—say, ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)”—and their occasional insistence on style over substance. Here was a band who crafted their own logo and merch before ever recording a song. (“I thought T-shirts were the key to this,” Eldritch reflected in 2019, “and I have not been proven wrong.”)

Of course, Eldritch’s self-deprecation was always part of the act, and the truth was that the Sisters of Mercy were significantly more talented and devoted than they let on. Their live shows were emotionally draining, and their recordings were meticulous and full of atmosphere: a sound often imitated but never matched. And yet, it’s the songwriting that helped distinguish them from their peers. Breakthroughs like 1983’s “Temple of Love” showcase Eldritch’s studious attention to the structures and melodies of the classic rock era while expressing the necessary gloom to fit in with the post-Joy Division post-punk boom.

Eldritch refined his songwriting by drawing common threads between all acts of barbarism, whether artistic or romantic or political. The band’s most recent album, 1990’s Vision Thing, is named after a term George H.W. Bush floated to describe the elusive quality that makes a candidate’s platform feel marketable. Eldritch—whose plan-B if the music thing didn’t work out was to study language at Oxford—always seemed attuned to this type of rhetoric. The group’s first greatest hits collection was called A Slight Case of Overbombing, his attempt at nailing the tone himself: the way that overly confident people present their dangerous ideas to a receptive audience.

Or, in other words, rock’n’roll. “We are the children of Altamont,” Eldritch has said of the Sisters of Mercy, which pinpoints their genesis to the very moment when things started falling apart: hippy utopia ushered out by actual violence; rock stars positioned as ill-equipped spokespeople for the chaos in their audience. If there’s an aspect of the Stones that the Sisters of Mercy internalized—outside of their ice-cold cover of “Gimme Shelter—it’s Mick Jagger standing on stage at Altamont, interrupting “Sympathy for the Devil” to urge his fans to “just cool out” as pandemonium spread. The disenchanted look on his face in the accompanying documentary says it all. The ’60s were over; the damage was done.

“There was a time,” Eldritch sang in the ’90s, “but it’s long gone.” Here is the perspective from which he writes best. Bars are always closing, the heat of the night fades into the heat of the day without distinction. Floodland represents the apex of Eldritch’s voice as a writer. He quotes T.S. Eliot, Percy Shelley, and Bob Dylan; he refers directly to the ongoing Cold War and indirectly to an oncoming apocalypse; he makes numerous barbs at his former bandmates and a couple devastating pleas to an ex. Sandwiched between their original classic lineup and the beefed-up rock band he assembled the following decade, it’s the closest thing to a solo album he made—an expression of his solitary vision. He played no shows to support it.

Because Sisters of Mercy have only made three albums—“three very good albums,” Eldritch interrupted a journalist to specify—there is a lot of weight on each one. I’d pinpoint Floodland as their greatest, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact many feared the story had ended when the band disassembled years before its release. Guitarist Gary Marx left to form Ghost Dance; Wayne Hussey and bassist Craig Adams formed the Mission. Eldritch now stood alone (or alone with the drum machine, which he named Doktor Avalanche). In the UK press especially, the breakup was documented with a venom that painted their work firmly in the past tense. “We’d done what we wanted to achieve,” Hussey said. “In doing that we’d lost the original essence of it…. We’d lost the joke of it. Because that’s what it was originally meant to be. A joke.”

Floodland is no joke. But there is a kind of humor to the way the whole thing played out. Prior to its release, when Eldritch heard that Hussey and Adams were starting a new band under the very cool and very official-sounding name the Sisterhood, he had no other choice but to rush out an album under this moniker before they could. And so the true predecessor to Floodland is actually 1986’s Gift, Eldritch’s sole album as the Sisterhood. It is nobody’s favorite record in his catalog, and it’s what Larry David might call a “spite album,” a project whose entire purpose is to inconvenience someone else.

And yet, Gift did introduce some important characters into Eldritch’s work. One is Patricia Morrison, the Gun Club bassist who played on the record. She appears on the cover of Floodland and all its accompanying videos despite allegedly not playing a note on the actual record. There is also the music of Gift itself, which was hastily assembled but formed a crucial part of Eldritch’s evolution. With less focus on the guitars, he favored a murky, synthy blend that placed John Carpenter’s horror scores alongside his personal canon of Motörhead and the Stooges. This would become the bedrock of Floodland, an album that swells and sweeps in one long suite, songs interconnected by bursts of feedback and recurring lyrics. Two songs—“Flood I” and “Flood II”—appear on either side of the record, spinning an imagistic vision that makes you imagine the whole record as some grim fantasy in the bedroom as the world spirals out of control outside the window.

The whole record flows beautifully, and there’s no track that doesn’t add to its majestic stature. But when we talk about Floodland, we talk about three songs. One, of course, is the eternal “This Corrosion,” the closest thing the album had to a hit single, and an idea that originally emerged around the time of Gift. But as the song evolved—with its neverending build and incessant, singalong chorus—Eldritch realized it was a card he should keep up his sleeve for maximum impact. This was the composition that encouraged him to set up shop at New York’s state-of-the-art Power Station studio, where he enlisted a team of session musicians, backing vocalists, and Meat Loaf collaborator Jim Steinman—the crowd-pleasing writer of Bat Out of Hell and “Total Eclipse of the Heart”— to polish his missive into a full-on dancefloor-filler.

The second single was “Dominion/Mother Russia,” which opens the album as a call to arms. Its seven-minute runtime introduced Eldritch’s new favored mode of songwriting: patiently riding a groove like a surfer on a towering wave, finding little slivers of quiet to squirrel away each clipped phrase. In the second half of the song, he builds tension with an almost spoken delivery, gaining momentum as the words start to avalanche, all set to a pounding, insistent rhythm that shows why, a few years later, Public Enemy would seem a natural fit for tourmates. (“America still has a big problem with white crowds and Black crowds in the same place at the same time,” he explained after the tour’s abrupt cancellation. “In addition to which, our record company is thoroughly useless and doesn’t like Black bands.”)

And then there is “Lucretia My Reflection,” the closest thing Eldritch ever crafted to his own classic rock anthem. It’s got the single best riff in his songbook—played on the bass, of course—and some of his most unforgettable lyrics. “I hear the roar of the big machine,” he announces, all bravado and momentum and impending disaster. Each chorus culminates with an invitation to “dance the ghost with me,” sung just before the song whips into a fiery, electric groove that still lights up the crowd at every festival this band plays.

Which is to say, 30-some years later, Andrew Eldritch is still playing festivals as the Sisters of Mercy. Which means Floodland worked. It allowed him to record and tour and keep the story going on his own terms, a boon for an artist who always fought against being seen as a cult act. But it also brought new trials. As the ’80s switched to the ’90s and alternative rock became a catchall term to replace the hyper-specific regional scenes from which he emerged, Eldritch felt boxed in by his reputation. He felt inspired by R.E.M.’s slow, shapeshifting ascent toward mainstream success: “But I can’t get my record company… to understand that I am Michael Stipe and not Ozzy Osbourne,” he said in 1993.

In the decades since, Eldritch has given up being Michael Stipe or Ozzy Osbourne; sometimes he doesn’t even seem like he wants to be Andrew Eldritch. He regularly writes and performs new material in concert, some of which his fans hail alongside his best work, but has yet to make another album. (“I’ve got other stuff to do, man,” is how he recently justified the decision. “I’ve been watching a lot of anime.”)

As someone who has studied the rise and fall of so many rock heroes before him, Eldritch sometimes gives off the impression of a dedicated music snob who somehow gained entry into the kingdom. In the mid-’90s, he got the chance to interview David Bowie, one of his heroes, around the release of Outside, the Brian Eno collaboration that many fans and critics saw as a daring return-to-form. Eldritch was unconvinced.

They engage in several long back-and-forths that endear you to both artists despite their firm differences. On one side is Bowie, endlessly inspired by youth culture and filled with optimism for the future; on the other is Eldritch, so tethered to his specific set of aesthetic principles that even entertaining the idea that Nine Inch Nails were worthy of attention seems to fill him with ire. Finally, Eldritch sums up his line of inquiry with a loaded question: Let’s say Outside is as good as everyone says it is. Do you suspect it could have the same impact as your ’70s work? Bowie admits the answer is probably no. Eldritch: “Then why put it out?”

Here is the defining principle of the Sisters of Mercy: to move people, to change the atmosphere in a room, to redefine yourself every time you step to the mic. To win. And if you can’t do that, what’s the point? In Mark Andrews’ essential biography, Paint My Name in Black and Gold, ex-member Gary Marx tells the story of his first time hearing the 10-minute version of “This Corrosion” blaring over the PA at a venue before his new band was supposed to go on stage. From the sounds of it, Marx knew right away it would become a hit. “Other people in the dressing room looked on wondering how I might react when it ended, if it ever ended,” he remembers. On one side of the curtain, Marx and his bandmates were getting a terrifying glimpse of the new competition; just outside their reach was an audience in pure rapture. And through the speakers was Eldritch, living his dream: a disembodied voice with a message that could echo through the ages, a ghost that would haunt whoever it reached, a dark joke that would only become darker and funnier the longer it went on.