I just watched this video about 7 times. The cook is never tired!
Bono is at his most preachy and ego-splosive. The band is at their least inspired. With two shopworn classic rock covers, “All Along the Watchtower” and “Helter Skelter,” RAH completes the evolution U2 started on Joshua Tree from post punk pioneers to baby boomer suck-ups. U2 tries out Bo Diddley beats, blues, soul and gospel and it feels like a school project. The only way to save this one is to strip it down to its one good song, “All I Want is You,” and issue it as a single.
After the one-two punch of Achtung Baby and Zooropa, U2 were feeling cocky and it shows. They went full bore into samplers and sequencers and ended sounding like they were trying to remake Filter’s “Trip Like I do” on every song. They’re too angsty and baggage-laden for Chemical Brothers electronics. It’s like taking molly with a recently divorced Dad.
10. Joshua Tree
I’m disdainful of this album. More information here.
9. No Line on the Horizon
How much is Bono bothered by Coldplay? Is it weird to still try to be a hit pop group when there’s another massively successful superstar group so indebted to your sound? Is that how Keith Richards felt when he heard the Black Crowes? I’m only asking because I have nothing constructive to say about this pedestrian late period release.
There are a lot of funny jokes on “U Talkin U2 to Me” but the most cutting one is that a better name for this album would be “one good song and a lot of fucking around.” “Gloria” is great. The rest is is skippable.
7. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
One, two, three, fourteen! Your enjoyment of this record on your tolerance for “Vertigo,” a song that seems equally indebted to the Supremes’ “Stop in the Name of Love” and “Dirty Boots” by Sonic Youth. I appreciate that they tried to rock out a little more than usual and think it’s a qualified success despite some filler.
6. All that You Can’t Leave Behind
“Beautiful Day” is probably the cheesiest song I truly love. They cleared a lot of garbage out of their sound after Pop but retained a surprising amount of electronics for what’s sometimes touted as a back to basics album. The whole album is a testament to their mastery of dynamics, with almost all songs featuring a finely crafted peak. Side two is mostly a write-off, but the first half is among U2’s best.
U2’s first album has two of their all-time greatest songs, “I Will Follow” and “Out of Control.” They’re struggling to find a unique sound, and it’s fun to listen to them get New Romantic edgy with “11 O’Clock Tick Tock”* and new wave angularity on “Twilight” and Flock of Seagulls faze on “A Day Without Me.” They sound like Souxsie and the Banshees with a better singer and a band willing to write songs in major keys.
*CORRECTION: “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” was a single and not on the original version of Boy. It’s on the special edition re-release, though.
4. Unforgettable Fire
This album is a battle for control between Bono and producer Brian Eno. Soaring vocals vie for dominance with ambient guitar soundscapes. The final result hits higher peaks than U2 had ever hit before. It’s not an unqualified success; the album’s undercooked and long stretches seem like Pink Floyd outtakes but the raw sincerity, charisma and instinctive sense of dynamics on tracks like “Bad” and “A Sort of Homecoming” more than make up for it.
3. Achtung Baby
It’s surprising how well this album holds up. U2 were out on a limb with this one, using new technology like sampling and loops. It could have easily been a dated-sounding record. They were soaking in the music from then-current Manchester “baggy” sound and added the requisite bongos and electro drums. But, almost certainly thanks to Eno’s meddling, the album is tempered by strange sounds that could be on a ‘70s Bowie record or OK Computer.
Everything good about Achtung Baby is improved on their Zooropa victory lap. The sounds are harsher and the songs are better. It seems like a throwaway at first, but it’s as heavy as the rest of their catalogue, just approached differently. Almost every song turns from silly to somber and back again. I think U2 felt like the stakes were low and so they loosened up and made a masterpiece so casual that people overlook its greatness.
“Seconds” and “Refugee” are deep album cuts. That’s how deep this bench is. U2 would never again be this consistent or as high energy as they are on War. Every song is a classic, punchy rock tune. Aside from “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (the one song I never, even want to hear again from this album), Bono is at his least annoying. Unforgettable Fire is rightly remembered as an experimental break from traditional song craft, which obscures the weird sounds on War like the almost atonal trumpet solo at the end of “Red Light” or the shimmering background vocals on “40.”
NOTES: I am not including E.P.s, live albums or the Passengers soundtrack.
Usually there’s an immediately evident appeal for a mega-selling records. The most obvious examples are Thriller and Dark Side of the Moon, undisputed heavyweight masterpieces that happen to be the number one and two selling records of all time. I can understand the value of best sellers that aren’t to my taste, like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and The Eagle’s Greatest Hits.
But I find The Joshua Tree (outsold, incidentally, by the Spice Girls’ Spice) alternately boring and irritating. I’ve had friends speak of how producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois created this layered majestic production but I just don’t hear it. It’s not U2’s worst record, thanks to the existence of Rattle and Hum and Pop, but it’s the one where they lost the thread.
Until Joshua Tree, U2 was a new wave, post-punk band. Unforgettable Fire saw them hooking up with Eno and adding spacier, European elements to their sound. But as experimental as that was, it was still within the ballpark of PiL, Sousxie and the Banshees and Echo and the Bunnymen—bands that were up until then their peers. With the Joshua Tree, U2 made a conscious decision to discard that post punk sound in favor of classic rock style Americana. They weren’t good enough musicians to record, say, Music from the Big Pink part two, and Eno was still around to keep them from degenerating into 12-bar blues and Dylan covers. It ends up as a spare, echoey grain silo of a record.
The record kicks off with four songs I would pay to never hear again: “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” With or Without You” and “Bullet the Blue Sky.” “WTSHNN” is U2 at its most plodding and deliberate, featuring three drawn-out introductions before the song’s melody kicks in. “ISHFWILF” and “WOWY” are essentially the same song; a weepy, hookless exercise in acoustic minimalism that wears out its welcome by the second verse. BTBS is 20 seconds worth of cool guitar sound effects spread over four and a half minutes of a rhythm section flop-sweating through “When the Levee Breaks.” “Running to a Stand Still” is a relief but it’s also essentially a remake of the superior Unforgettable Fire track “Bad.”
The second side is an improvement, with stand out tracks like “In God’s Country” and “Red Hill Mining Town.” “Trip Through Your Wires” is a harbinger of the inept blues-rock of Rattle and Hum. Otherwise, it’s filler that would someday serve as blueprints for Coldplay’s career.
Throughout the album, they’re using slide guitar, harmonica, acoustic guitars; essentially the same palette employed on classic rock chestnuts like Highway 61 Revisited and Beggars Banquet. U2 and Eno are less technically adept but more clever than their classic rock antecedents. They use those sounds as texture, mood and accents. The slide guitar in “BTBS” doesn’t create a melody. It instills a sense of dread. A similar atmospheric effect is achieved with the church-like organ intro of “WTSHNN” and the harmonica in “Trip Through Your Wires.”
In a lot of ways, Joshua Tree is a post-modern document, assembled from borrowed materials into a comment on how those materials were previously used. Which makes it sort of interesting, but not exactly good.
The other day, I was holding my daughter and started singing “you’ve got to get yourself together…” I haven’t heard that song in at least five years and yet it had ear-wormed into my brain like a Wrath of Khan mind control slug. Bono and the boys don’t just write choruses. They write anthems. From “I Will Follow” on and up to “Beautiful Day,” their best songs big-blast off in the refrains in ways songs by other artists can’t match. The melodies effortlessly soar. It’s uplifting music in an almost achingly literal sense.
Bono is a Great Singer
It’s really weird that Bono is able to find a vocal melody over all the chiming guitars at all. The Edge’s guitar parts are usually comprised of about three or four notes at the most. Bono’s singing doesn’t follow the chords. They’re often a counterpoint or a barely connected melody that floats over the rest of band. It makes an otherwise minimalist band seem really full. And beyond musical value, he broadcasts charisma and emotion. When he waves a big stupid white flag/mullet combo on stage it’s something that’s almost earned.
“War” is Just So Good
Except for “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” which is either terrible or over-exposed, every song on that record is killer.
Cleverly Curated Cultural Appropriation
The members of U2 must have amazing record collections judging by all the stuff they’ve assimilated into their music. Siousxie and the Banshees? Kraftwerk? Johnny Cash? Lou Reed? I’d let them run the jukebox for sure. They’re not skillful mimics and they filter everything through their chimey sound, so it usually sounds like an influence rather than a rip-off. Like when U2’s early new wave records are compared to post punk bands like Magazine, there are so many obvious caveats that it seems kind of cool instead of stealing.
U2 has a really specific mood. It’s not party music, it’s not mopey music, it’s not dance music, it’s not even really rock music, exactly. If you’re in the right mindset, it’s just cheesy as hell. But if it hits you at the right moment, it’s a triumphant, ecstatic vibe that can have a lasting improvement on your mood. It’s great sunny day driving music that can make you more enthusiastic about your destination.
If I were to put together a U2 playlist, it would span 30 years. “Out of Control” and I Will Follow” are great songs. So are “Zooropa,” “Lemon,” and “Beautiful Day.” As a point of comparison, in the same amount of time, Paul McCartney went from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to post Wings trash. The Stones went from “Satisfaction” to “Waiting on a Friend.” Jimmy Page went from “Communication Breakdown” to crippling heroin addiction or maybe the Honeydrippers. I forget.
If you subtract his humanitarian/political issues, Bono is basically the obnoxious first act of a movie where an ego monster rock star switches bodies with a nerd to learn
a valuable lesson about humility. He’s so pleased with himself he’s almost on Tom Cruise-level fame-related sociopathy. Even when he’s trying to be modest it’s cranked to 11, like when he tried to cover for the failure of “Pop” by saying the band was reapplying for the job of best band in the world. Ugh. Dude. Come on.
The Edge is as much of a lame shit as Bono but gets away with his lameness by merely being the guy standing next to Bono. If you ever want to get a sense of a smug unpleasant uptight rich dude, pay attention to his scenes in “It Might Get Loud.” He’s a guitar effects master and can write a catchy tune but watching him struggle with a rudimentary blues riff is like watching a millionaire accountant unable to do subtraction.
Their Status as a Global “Brand”
Is becoming an inescapable part of being a super-star? I guess that being a big rock band anytime after 1980 is like being part of Twitter or Costco or something. You generate a lot of money, which necessitates a certain amount of organization. And if you’re trying to be a moral person you’re going to try to figure out what it means when that organization earns and spends money. And you have to define a corporate culture and make strategic partnerships with Apple or Bill Gates or something. Then you find out that your accountant actually did his/her job and everybody is mad at you for tax dodging.
Sub Par Musicianship
Most of the members of U2 are only barely performing their jobs at the professional level. The Edge’s guitar playing is 90 percent delay and Adam Clayton’s bass playing is almost entirely eighth notes. That’s high school shit. Drummer Larry Mullen should be called “viagra overdose” because he’s always fucking stiff. It would take them weeks of trial and error to cobble together the set-list of your average wedding band and it still wouldn’t groove. Collectively they are more than the sum of their parts, but they’d have to be, as the sum is really, really small.
Their Greatest Hits are Either Inherently Terrible or Overplayed to Death
“With or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Where the Streets Have No Name, “One” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” are like a murderers’ row of songs I never want to hear again. I have no idea if it’s because the songs suck or because I’ve heard them a billion times.
The Lyrics are Distractingly Terrible
It must have rained a lot in Ireland in the mid ’80s. “Unforgettable Fire and “Joshua Tree” lyrics are like teleprompter copy for the Weather Channel. Everything’s about howling wind, the sky or the rain. The weather report is occasionally interrupted by non sequitur Biblical allusions and fear of walls and blindness. Or maybe it’s just weird statements or oddly curated quotes like “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” or “in New York summers get hot.” (also: weather.)
Previous U2 coverage here: Talkin U2, an introduction.
The way her voice drips in like syrup when she comes into her & Porter Wagoner’s cover of “Dark End of the Street.” Continue reading
They’ve been easy to passively ignore and/or actively hate. Any cultural work that’s conquered the world can seem obnoxious by being around all the time. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” blares in supermarkets, restaurants and waiting rooms. “With or Without You” plays on the hour at miserable Irish bars. They’ve been featured in Apple commercials, soundtracks for awful movies, Superbowl halftime shows and been overall so obnoxious to be portrayed as human waste come to life on South Park.
But ubiquity aside, U2′s grandiose pomposity makes it hard to like them. Even when they’re admirable—there’s nothing inherently wrong with a pop group advocating for political action or trying to combat global poverty—there’s an off-putting messianic element that’s impossible to ignore.
U2’s music only fits a very specific mood. It’s weird music to hear at a bar or a party. Their music doesn’t traffic in the sex, power and swagger that most groups of their stature do. Nothing from the Joshua Tree inspires fist pumping, dancing or air guitar playing the way something like their fellow superstars Led Zeppelin, Britney Spears, Jay-Z or even REM, their closest contemporaries, can.
But I got turned around nonetheless, through a comedy podcast. Supreme deadpan comedians Adam Scott and Scott Aukerman are currently on week nine of a prankish exploration of U2’s music in a miniseries U Talkin U2 to Me? The central joke of the show is that the hosts only occasionally talk about the band, despite billing it as an encyclopedic exploration of the band’s music. My flat description is ruining both the show and my reputation as a humorous dude, but trust me, it’s a funny, goofy vibe.
But while I came for the rambling conversation, I’ve come away with a new appreciation for Bono and his boys.
I’ll be writing more about this over the coming days, but I’ve become convinced that at the heart of the U2 global cultural and economic monolith, there’s something genuinely strange and interesting.
I chanced across this song this morning on WFMU. It’s not the sort of song I think people would associate with me and it’s not the sort of song I would usually recommend. It’s folky and formal, pretty and well mannered. I think there’s something about hearing something on the radio instead of self curating that made hearing it in the car seem lyrical and noteworthy.
The DJ said the singer, Tiny Ruins, was from New Zealand. The fingerpicking and the hesitant melody reminded me of Nick Drake, only with a girl voice echoing Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell maybe. The lyrics seemed like a little bit of a scold. I could have googled to find out more, but I like only knowing what I know from hearing it on the radio. I thought maybe it was an oblique kiss off to a middle of the road monster like David Brooks or his New Zealand equivalent.
There’s a distant, haunted quality to the song. Usually I can’t handle this kind of ornate beauty, but it’s spiced with just enough bitterness and abstraction sneak into my sweet spot. I would love to see it played over the opening credits of a movie.
The version in the video isn’t the version I heard. She explains that it’s missing instruments that provided it with more stateliness. I like the version in the video because she seems like good people.
UPDATE: I started following Tiny Ruins on Twitter. Evidently her whole album is streaming on the New York Times‘ website. So it’s an interesting coincidence that I invoked Times columnist David Brooks above.