Before they were transfigured into a cadre of spiritual, modern day prophets and Bono had assumed his now firmly entrenched international position as a wise, benevolent guru, U2 were a simple rock band; while even at this stage of their career they were undeniably ambitious, they were so primarily in a musical sense, never professing to offer enlightenment or even much in the way of social critique.
What they did offer, however, was a highly impressive collection of well crafted, tightly performed rock songs; while they bore little resemblance to the seminal rock outfit that they would subsequently become, this doesn't change the fact that Boy was an immensely auspicious debut, as the band were very capable songwriters even at this embryonic phase of their lifespan.
Thus I Will Follow and A Day Without Me are bouncy, hyper catchy tunes, ultimately slight but still eminently rewarding, Twilight is an atmospheric classic, An Cat Dubh and Another Time, Another Place are superb dark rockers and Out Of Control features the drive and structure of a punk song without the grating attitude generally inherent to the genre.
While the band manage to vary the songs in terms of speed, form and tone, the overarching sound of the album remains static throughout the LP's duration, resulting in a listening experience that may border on monotony despite the high quality of each individual track; fortunately this is hardly a fatal defect, as the uniformity can always be overcome by the brilliant songwriting, which compensates for any liabilities in other departments.
While he may not explore the full range of his vocal capabilities to the extent that he would on future endeavors, Bono's singing is quite impressive from the start, be it his despairing shouts on Twilight or his exceptional vocal gymnastics on An Cat Dubh, which rank amongst the best hooks on the album.
Elsewhere the Edge emerges as a highly accomplished guitarist from the start, providing great riffs and impressive soloing with a distinctive and effective guitar tone. As I alluded to earlier it would certainly be preferable if he alternated guitar tone throughout the album to dispel the record's unfortunate sonic uniformity, but he still distinguishes himself as a highly gifted musician, thriving on each track be they tenebrous aural tapestries like Twilight or more upbeat tunes like the classic opener I Will Follow.
Ultimately Boy is simply a great debut, unveiling the potential of the band while still allowing them plenty of room to grow and develop. The songwriting is excellent, as each song offers an array of clever hooks and stellar riffs, while the group's already adept at setting disparate moods, from the subtle menace of An Cat Dubh to the catharsis of the ballad Into The Heart (a weaker and more derivative track but still quite pretty in its own right).
The group, quite naturally given that this was their debut, had yet to forge a true identity for themselves, but their innate talent ensures that this is never a critical problem. For now they were content to simply lay a foundation of strong songwriting and impressive performances, the backbone of all of their eventual aural experimentation and spiritual enterprises.
Whereas Boy was content to simply offer a collection of solid rock songs, bereft of any more lofty ambitions, October transparently aspires to be something more than a mere conventional album; U2's sophomore effort is clearly an attempt at making a major artistic statement, a moving listen that transcends the previously established scope of the medium, thus claiming its place in the rock and roll pantheon as a deeply religious, uplifting aural experience.
It's these higher pretensions that ultimately sabotage the album, manifesting themselves both musically and lyrically throughout the record. Religious lyrics, specifically Christian in character, abound, and they'll invariably be a source of irritation for those who either lack the group's particular religious convictions or affiliations or those who feel that lyrically simplistic, overproduced rock albums aren't the ideal forum for messages of this nature.
It's the production of the album, however, that emerges as the critical factor in the overall listening experience. Each song is the recipient of the same production formula, treatments designed to fashion each track into a sweeping, emotionally charged anthem with a healthy dose of religion infused into the mix.
This brand of production actually suits many of the songs, elevating the tracks into powerful rock epics, but when it's applied to the lesser fare on the album it simply serves to expose the tracks' weaknesses, exacerbating already lacking material.
Songs with poor or nearly nonexistent melodies are hardly conducive to being transfigured into religious experiences, and treating them as such considerably mars the proceedings; while they may masquerade as moving statements while hiding behind the elaborate production, the contrast between the studio reinvention that they received and the rudimentary songwriting cause the songs to simply fall flat, utter misfires devoid of either religious or musical value.
Furthermore, as a repercussion of the uniform production the songs received many of the more nondescript offerings become interchangeable; there's precious little variety on the album, as each track seems to conform to the same structure of a driving beat, echoey production and generic Christian imagery.
The album attempts to cultivate and sustain an emotional crescendo for its entirety with wave after wave of powerful religious rockers and pretty ballads, but the uniformity of these tracks is simply wearying after awhile, making it difficult to respond to anything on an emotional level after a certain point.
Despite this plethora of criticisms, however, the album does a lot right, enough to merit a solid rating. As previously mentioned the production is disastrous for the weaker numbers that seek to coat themselves in ferocious guitar tones, booming drums and potent vocals to mask their lack of substance, but it works wonderfully for the better tracks, enabling them to ascend above the limits of good rock songs into true works of art.
To this end there are myriad strong tracks that make full use of the production. Gloria and Rejoice boast stellar riffs and powerful vocal climaxes, songs like I Threw A Brick Through A Window are comparatively subtle with moody atmospherics and the title track is pretty and succeeds despite its brevity.
None of the songs are overtly bad; some tracks are simply a bit on the bland side, suffering from the production's attempts at molding them into works of musical and emotional enlightenment.
Ultimately October is a letdown after the group's highly promising debut; it takes the band in a new direction, which is admirable, but in the process it loses much of what made Boy such a great album. It's obvious that, after building some confidence on their first outing, U2 went on to tackle more challenging material, the sort that they had aspired to from the start but lacked the clout and self-assuredness necessary for endeavors of this nature.
While this isn't the direction I would have liked them to go in, they, for the most part, pull off a difficult feat, crafting religious works that are far more palatable than similar enterprises from the likes of Bob Dylan during his born again Saved period. There are a number of strong songs on the album, and many manage to successfully muster the power that U2 aspires to envelop the listener in over the course of the record.
Ergo October is a solid offering, weaker than Boy but still containing a lot to offer the listener. It may not be the powerful, profound and moving magnum opus they sought to create, but it still manages to be powerful and moving in its own right, a testament to the band's abilities, as even at their most misguided they successfully produce something eminently worthwhile.
War marks yet another change in direction for the four young men from Ireland, a group that, despite their early successes, were still searching for their voice. Thankfully the band have eschewed the trappings of Christianity that had dominated their last offering, albeit replacing them with what would become their modus operandi in the form of a deeply polemical streak (such as on Sunday Bloody Sunday and The Refugee) and pronounced spiritual tendencies (such as on "40"), but these are far less intrusive and problematic than the ubiquitous religious aspects that defined their prior release and obstructed their growth as a rock group.
The degree of the band's development on War is deceptive, as while there are indeed massive improvements displayed on some tracks there are also sporadic moments of blandness and tedium. Thus while the album's highlights are superior to any of the group's works that preceded them it loses to Boy in the consistency department, making for a listen that would be frustrating were it not for the sheer brilliance of the record's top tier tracks.
Thus Sunday Bloody Sunday and New Year's Day rank amongst the best songs ever composed by the band, a duo of moody, tenebrous and haunting tracks that are simultaneously immensely catchy and profoundly harrowing. Their melodies are superb, their atmospherics completely engrossing and their lyrics are not only intelligent and moving but perfectly complement the music as well.
Elsewhere Seconds features some simple yet irresistible vocal hooks that are almost pop in nature, The Refugee boasts a consummately catchy and memorable vocal melody and Two Hearts Beat As One is another stellar epic from the band.
While some might bemoan the paucity of effective riffs, it's more than compensated for by the Edge's exceptional guitarwork and Bono's progression as an incredible vocalist. There may be a dearth of riffs but great hooks still abound, and Bono has reached a point where his vocals can carry and sustain a song in and of themselves for an entire track's runtime (which is not to say that that situation arises with any degree of regularity, as the performances of his bandmates remain topnotch throughout the album).
Unfortunately, as I alluded to earlier, the album is woefully inundated with a number of tracks that eminently merit the 'filler' label. Tracks like Drowning Man and Like A Song… are colossally bland, the token spiritual number "40" manages to be grating despite its diminutive length and Surrender does little to warrant its bloated runtime. None of these tracks are bad per se, but nonetheless they detract from the better material, diluting the potency of an otherwise highly effective record.
Despite these misfires, the album's highlights more than justify its high grade, and classics such as Sunday Bloody Sunday and New Year's Day are essential for any fan of U2. The album drags a bit toward the end, as the track order leaves something to be desired (far too much filler is concentrated at the end, leaving a bad taste in the mouth of any listener), but nevertheless War is a great outing for the group, featuring tremendous growth in the songwriting department on many of the tracks and a healthy number of memorable hooks and catchy melodies to ensure one's enjoyment of the LP.
Needless to say the album would be far superior if it could manage to sustain the quality of its better tracks throughout the whole record, but U2 were simply incapable of this feat at this stage in their development. They can hardly be lambasted for this, as this is merely their third album, but they do give a clear indication of the potential of their later work, making one very hopeful for the band's future.
As evidenced by absolutely stunning tracks like New Year's Day and Sunday Bloody Sunday, U2 were poised to have an artistic breakthrough, ascending into the upper echelons of the rock music industry. In order to make this leap, however, the band was still in dire need of more artistic progression, and thus in order to facilitate this growth the group brought in Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno to lend their considerable abilities toward helping U2 find a unique voice, a partnership that reinvented the very sound of the band itself.
For anyone previously acquainted with his work, either in the capacity of producer or performer, Eno's touch is unmistakable; the songs are universally imbued with a sonic richness and complexity that the group's prior work had lacked, with the layers upon layers of sound that have come to be associated with one of the key pioneers in both the ambient and new wave movements.
Thus the inevitable question arises: is U2's work compatible with the trademark Eno aural treatment? Fortunately the answer is a resounding yes; the group's new sound brilliantly complements their material, never sounding incongruous or obstructing the band's own musical identity. The sonic richness adds a new dimension to the band's sound, aiding in their development; while some would argue that rather than find their own voice they simply usurped Brian Eno's, none of the content, save for the instrumental 4th Of July, could ever be mistaken for an Eno track, as the sonic guru's influence on the album is more concerned with enhancing the band's work as opposed to stealing the spotlight for his own aural tapestries.
Unfortunately, while the band's output is eminently conducive toward inheriting the Eno treatment, The Unforgettable Fire doesn't present the group at their best. The songwriting on the album can be somewhat erratic, exacerbated by the fact that the filler quotient arrives at the very end of the album, ensuring that the LP doesn't conclude on a terribly auspicious note. Elvis Presley And America is a rather tepid, tedious listen, and its mediocrity is compounded by the bizarre decision of Eno's to abstain from getting involved with that particular number.
The final track, MLK, suffers from the dreaded phenomenon of being moving through association as opposed to offering any qualities in the song itself that could lead the listener to catharsis. While the track will undoubtedly conjure an array of emotions associated with its subject, it lacks any intrinsic merit to enable it to stand on its own when divorced from its sentimental purpose.
Thankfully much of the material on the album is rather strong. Pride is a sweeping anthem of the kind that only Bono could pull off without sounding bloated or pretentious, with a terrific refrain and exceptional guitarwork from the Edge. Wire manages to rock ferociously without resorting to punk dynamics or metal excesses, the title track infuses an irresistible aural mysticism into the proceedings, while Bad is carried almost exclusively by Bono's outstanding vocals which transfigure an otherwise innocuous track into an emotional epic.
Thus, in the long run, The Unforgettable Fire is quite a strong outing, introducing a brilliant new sound that's nevertheless built on the solid foundation that band had established in the past. Lanois and Eno's production is outstanding without ever eclipsing the group's always reliable songwriting craftsmanship. The duo of sonic masters enable U2 to realize their musical visions in such a way that was previously impossible, and this helps elevate their material to new heights. While the album itself wasn't an ideal forum to introduce these new aural elements, as it's afflicted with a mild case of inconsistency, it's still a great representation of what the band is capable of when paired with mentors to guide them like Lanois and Eno, pointing the way to a very bright future.
In some respects The Unforgettable Fire can be perceived as a prototype or template for The Joshua Tree, determining how best to integrate Lanois and Eno's new sonic dynamics with the band's traditional sound to make an optimal product; The Unforgettable Fire was a commendable attempt at this, though its successor would marry this aural evolution to material that could better match it. In this regard The Joshua Tree is the culmination of U2's aspirations, not only on that album but their prior ones as well, the breakthrough artistic statement that they'd been attempting to compose since their inception as a rock outfit.
Thus the album evades the pitfalls that plagued their earlier work, as it's more diverse than Boy and more consistent than War and The Unforgettable Fire. It's indeed deeply spiritual, but not in the overbearing, transparently religious way that sabotaged October; rather its spirituality is far more organic, derived from the music as opposed to ham fistedly superimposed over it.
This is not to say that's the album's perfect, as myriad complaints have been leveraged against it. The principal critique revolves around the fact that the album's four behemoths, the four universally acclaimed and beloved sonic masterworks, are all concentrated at the beginning of the album, causing the remainder of the album to feel somewhat anticlimactic.
Though this is certainly a valid criticism, it's one that doesn't especially trouble me; while admittedly the rest of the material isn't composed of instant classics of the stature that the beginning of the LP offers, the subsequent content is quite strong, as repeated listens reveal these songs to be eminently rewarding in their own right, tracks that shouldn't be eclipsed by the more well known fare.
Thus the album is far more consistent than it's often depicted as, though the first four tracks do merit special attention. The opener Where The Streets Have No Name starts the album on a high note, while I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For displays the group's newfound skill at making their more overtly spiritual fare palatable for those for whom the trappings of organized religion are anathema, enabling all listeners to enjoy its catchy melody and infectious refrain. With Or Without You is despairing beauty at its finest, while Bullet The Blue Sky is a stellar apocalyptic rocker made all the more haunting and menacing by Eno's treatment and Bono's brilliant performance.
While this is indeed an exceptional quartet the remaining tracks nearly sustain this high level of quality, a difficult feat that certainly warrants one's admiration. Running To Stand Still is a softer and more emotional number highlighted by Bono's gentle vocals, Red Hill Mining Town boasts a great chorus, In God's Country is quite catchy, Trip Through Your Wires employs country aesthetics to good effect (also infusing a healthy dose of diversity into the mix), One Tree Hill features a nearly gospel-like refrain that fits in with the group's customary spirituality, Exit is a dark rocker in the same vein as Bullet The Blue Sky that, despite not being nearly as good, is still quite solid, and Mothers Of The Disappeared is an appropriate and moving finale.
Ultimately the album is a resounding triumph, a realization of all of the group's ambitions. Marrying topnotch songwriting to Lanois and Eno's sonic wizardly results in a brilliant product, one that would set the standard for U2 albums to come. Far more than the four track album it's often derided as, The Joshua Tree is a true masterpiece, depicting the group at their absolute finest.
The monumental success of The Joshua Tree instantly catapulted the group to the heights of superstardom; however, in the wake of this commercial breakthrough the band was left with the unenviable task of producing a follow up to this musical behemoth. This posed quite the dilemma for the four men from Ireland; were they to adhere to the formula of The Joshua Tree they'd be in danger of stagnation, but a massive stylistic deviation from their beloved masterwork could risk alienating their newly acquired fanbase.
Nonetheless, despite the innate peril of the latter option U2 did indeed reinvent themselves for their first post-Joshua Tree outing, crafting an LP in no way reminiscent of their previous album. This must have taken tremendous courage from the band, but unfortunately their daring wasn't rewarded with a quality product, as Rattle And Hum is a decidedly mediocre work, an album that would merit a harsh critique were it to stand on its own, much less be judged as the follow up to the group's seminal masterpiece.
For reasons nearly impossible to fathom U2 elected to embrace American roots rock on their newest endeavor, a mystifying decision that can hardly be said to play to the group's strengths. Their interpretation of the genre is perfectly adequate, but it dilutes much of the band's force and power, a defect that's further exacerbated by their amateurish songwriting abilities when dealing with this particular style.
Thus U2 fashion an array of ultimately forgettable numbers, from the generic rocker Desire to the prosaic ballad All I Want Is You to the utter debacle that is their collaboration with BB King, the cringe inducing bluesy retro anthem When Love Comes To Town. There's a severe paucity of quality hooks and melodies on the album, and when they are present they're generally of a rather pedestrian variety, thoroughly derivative and predictable.
There are exceptions to this rule, as Silver And Gold is a tight rocker and, though the very idea of it is utterly preposterous, the sequel to John Lennon's God (creatively titled God Part II) at least rocks convincingly, making it an ultimately enjoyable experience.
This tepid selection of songs is further padded by the inclusion of a series of live numbers. The covers tend to be bastardizations of the originals, hence the anemic renditions of Helter Skelter and All Along The Watchtower (wherein Bono even commits the unforgivable atrocity of adding some of his own lyrics to a Dylan song). The live performances of their own material fail to ameliorate the proceedings; I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For is sadly butchered by a gospel inspired treatment, while Pride and Bullet The Blue Sky are competent versions of great songs but are still wholly superfluous if you own the far superior originals (and Bullet The Blue Sky, in particular, suffers greatly from the lack of Eno's production).
Thus Rattle And Hum is a rather dismal experience. While tracks like the poppy Angel Of Harlem and Desire are often lauded as U2 classics they, and nearly all of the originals on the album, are strikingly banal and nondescript, offering little that's new or exciting. While they're hardly offensive they lack the craftsmanship and passion that the group had traditionally infused into their work, making for a rather tedious and unrewarding experience.
The album simply lacks the group's distinctive voice and identity. Were the group to compose and perform at their usual level then I would have no objection to the paradigm shift into American roots rock, but they prove themselves to be novices in this style, crafting mediocre songs with only a modicum of interesting instrumentation. There's little that's offensive, and tracks like their cover of Helter Skelter, while quite poor, can sometimes constitute a guilty pleasure if you're in the right mood, and if you're feeling particularly charitable one could even allow himself to be moved by the standard emotional numbers like the closer All I Want Is You, but in the end Rattle And Hum is an unfortunate misfire, the first in the group's legendary career. Plagued by mundane and predictable new material and live performances incapable of cultivating any tangible level of excitement, the album is an artistic failure, a misstep that's compounded by an overly long runtime. It's difficult to believe that an album of this low level of quality is the follow up to the unmitigated classic The Joshua Tree, a rather jarring qualitative plummet that compelled the group to, quite sagaciously, take a few years off to rethink their approach to rock music.
After a lackluster showing (which extended to its commercial success) with Rattle And Hum, U2 were not only forced to prove that that album was an anomaly but were likewise faced with the beginning of a new decade; the latter may have seemed even more daunting for the group, as they had to contend with the dawning of a new era of rock music in which all of the rock outfits from prior epochs had to demonstrate to a fickle audience that they weren't obsolete, mere leftover dinosaurs who had overstayed their welcome in the music scene.
This predicament necessitated yet another artistic reinvention, but after the disastrous makeover on their prior outing they had to make sure that their new identity would not only be conducive toward good music but would likewise enable them to remain a commercially viable act in their new generational context. Managing that balance would be an incredibly difficult and demanding feat, one that many of their contemporaries were incapable of pulling off.
To that end U2 were forced to assimilate some fashionable elements derived from the current music scene, resulting in the integration of everything from dance beats to the trappings of modern electronica into their mix. Incorporating these dynamics into their work while retaining their original identity was a delicate process, but fortunately one that they managed to successfully implement; thus Rattle And Hum's very existence seems all the more puzzling, as it's little more than a mediocrity sandwiched between the group's two best albums, a seemingly arbitrary failure culled from a band that was undeniably at their artistic peak.
U2 adroitly negotiated the marriage of their core sound and their modern influences, yielding a final product that's both palatable for a new generation of listeners and for their longtime fans. The hybrid form that the band assumes is more than a superficial facelift designed to attract new fans; it directly affects the very sound of the group itself. Fortunately the band adapt this sound to their style perfectly, making no sacrifices over the course of this reinvention; the modern influences complement their material perfectly, and the group's skillful songwriting always takes full advantage of both the old and new sides of U2.
The implementation of this new sound is once again overseen by the duo of Lanois and Eno, which greatly aids this sonic paradigm shift. The band could have chosen no one better to update their sound while retaining their musical essence, as it's abundantly clear that both Eno and Lanois understand the group perfectly while likewise knowing which aspects of the group needed to be adjusted to facilitate this aural transformation.
The band's new sound is highly compelling, so much so that even when the melodies falter the sonic wizardry of the tracks often redeems the defects in the songwriting department. The Edge is often the true star of this cutting edge sound, conjuring brilliant guitar tones played with the utmost skill and precision.
This is not to say that there are qualitative lapses in the songwriting department with any degree of regularity; the album isn't bereft of filler, as there are moments of exasperating blandness like Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses and So Cruel, but overall the songs are meticulously crafted by Bono and company, brilliantly penned compositions filled with great melodies and plentiful hooks.
The album starts on a great note with the surreal Zoo Station, a track that makes it abundantly clear from the first note that U2 are a group reborn. The song sounds nothing like any prior compositions from the band, demonstrating the extent of the group's metamorphosis. The song is a sonic wonder; it doesn't feature a stellar melody or boast many spectacular hooks, but its sound is utterly enthralling, making the track a gripping listen for the entirety of its duration.
From there Even Better Than The Real Thing sports an unforgettable chorus and an edgy, immersive atmosphere that made it the ideal candidate for one of the album's key singles, while One is an emotional tour de force and one of the group's finest ballads, with moody verses culminating in a cathartic climax.
Until The End Of The World may be the album's best cut, a tenebrous rocker with a brilliant lush, full sound that makes its haunting, penetrative music and lyrics all the more potent, while The Fly is a hyper catchy rocker that fuses dance beats with dark verses and an irresistible Bono falsetto.
Mysterious Ways was another natural choice for single status, a bouncy anthem with excellent wah-wah enhanced guitarwork from the Edge that never becomes bogged down with the type of religious imagery that would have dominated the song had it been culled from the October era, while Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World succeeds where Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses failed at offering a moving, emotional ballad, complete with more memorable hooks and an effective minimalistic structure.
Ultra Violet (Light My Way) is a catchy track that dabbles in pop aesthetics without compromising its more serious nature, Acrobat is a caliginous, harrowing number with a world weary vibe and aggressive tone while the closer, Love Is Blindness, is dark beauty at its finest.
Thus Achtung Baby is a resounding triumph, sufficiently strong that its instances of filler can easily be overlooked. Rarely has a major rock group successfully reinvented itself at such a late stage in its career, yet on this album U2 not only modified their style to suit the times but also released one of their best offerings. The band retained their greatest strengths and applied them in a new context, resulting in an incarnation of U2 capable of thriving in a new era with no meaningful sacrifices having to be made.
The product of brilliant songwriting and aural innovation, Achtung Baby proved that U2 could hold its own in a new era while providing one of the finest experiences to be found in the band's discography. By making sure to invest their passion and craftsmanship into each track without simply relying on a trendy new sound to sustain them the band deftly translated their skills into a new musical environment; Achtung Baby was for the 90's what The Joshua Tree was for the 80's, a perfect synthesis of the band's inherent songwriting genius and the trappings of the zeitgeist that surrounded them.
Achtung Baby was the recipient of countless accolades, lavished with praise by customarily jaded critics and causal fans alike; thus it would follow that their subsequent outings, which closely adhered to the stylistic nuances pioneered on that album, would likewise be hailed as artistic triumphs. This, however, was not the case; the follow up to that epochal classic, Zooropa, elicited nothing but bile from its listeners, compelling critics and fans to denigrate it with vitriolic invective. Scathing reviews were penned, vilifying the LP as a soulless, eldritch mass of sterile electronica and lifeless dance beats, a futile attempt to latch onto the musical trends of its era. Where Achtung Baby was praised as a successful foray into the realm of modern music, Zooropa is lambasted as an utter debacle, the product of a group past its prime endeavoring to fit into a sonic landscape that was wholly alien to them.
It's true that this oft maligned CD is a far cry from its monumentally superior predecessor, but that doesn't mean that it merits the critical evisceration it received at the hands of its appalled listeners. It does indeed descend further into the realm of modern trends of its time than its predecessor had, sacrificing a portion of the band's identity in the process; its brand of experimental dance beats and assorted techno exercises could certainly be cast as a betrayal of their erstwhile style. But this doesn't mean that the album is bereft of merit; on the contrary, it's a worthy follow up to Achtung Baby that, while not reaching the same dizzying heights of its predecessor, offers much that can be lauded as well.
To begin with, it's hardly a radical departure from their prior 90's efforts from a stylistic perspective; in fact it's a natural successor to the work that precedes it, continuing in the same directions first explored on Achtung Baby. It may go too far in these areas, causing the group to momentarily lose sight of their strengths, but by and large the formula still works; this is unmistakably the work of the same band that produced the brilliant Achtung Baby, and their talents remain wholly intact.
The reason for this is that the caliber of the songwriting remains quite strong. The title track is a multipart epic, constantly absorbing for its whole duration, from the hypnotic slow build to the glorious climax. Tracks like Stay (Faraway, So Close!) and Some Days Are Better Than Others, when stripped of their techno embellishments, sound more akin to the group's past work; this works in the songs' favor, as it provides a solid foundation for their modern treatment, ensuring that those numbers are more than a collection of assorted sound effects and electronic noodling.
Babyface is simple but catchy, while Lemon is an experimental techno anthem that succeeds on all fronts, providing catchy instrumental passages and a unique, unconventional style. Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car sports industrial overtones accompanied by an ominous atmosphere, while Dirty Day is built around a basic but effective riff that serves as a template for more sonic wizardry. Numb is notable for solely being the Edge's creation, as he assumes vocal responsibilities while he utilizes a guitar tone that recalls Dave Gilmour at his most experimental.
Not all the tracks work; The First Time is criminally bland no matter what sound effects are superimposed over it, while the closer The Wanderer can't even be salvaged by Johnny Cash providing guest vocals on it. These numbers detract from the overall experience, but a modicum of filler is to be expected on an album that flirts with experimental trends and avant garde tendencies.
Thus Zooropa is a woefully underrated experience, featuring solid songwriting and impressive performances. While one could argue that it heads in directions that are counterproductive for a band of this nature, they acquit themselves quite admirably in a milieu that most eighties groups couldn't adjust to. Whether or not it's the ideal style for the U2 of the nineties, the album offers more than enough musical substance to justify its existence, boasting a handful of memorable melodies and clever hooks. Contrary to popular belief the group's talent didn't atrophy in the wake of Achtung Baby, and thus they were eminently capable of producing a work worthy of the band's name, even if it's mired in the excesses of its era. Achtung Baby wasn't a fluke; U2 could indeed generate strong material even while firmly entrenched in the world of nineties rock and roll, persevering through any adversity that they came up against, be it unfamiliar musical terrain or the harsh critiques of their embittered audience.
The sound of Pop is one of lifeless beats, sterile atmospherics and manufactured energy; while the group had been tending in that direction since they first entered the technophile nineties it wasn't until their final album of the decade that they fully eschewed their erstwhile passionate delivery, resulting in an album devoid of the emotional spark that once animated their works.
The techno sound dominates the entirety record, with only a modicum of emotion imbued into the content. When they attempt to recapture their emotion of old they fall flat, as is made abundantly clear on the impotent anthem If God Will Send His Angels; where U2 were once one of the most spiritually stirring, resonant rock outfits, on this track the spirituality feels forced and artificial, a vain attempt to rekindle some of the magic of old.
This attempt at manufactured catharsis isn't the only culprit sabotaging the album; elsewhere Miami is colossally grating, The Playboy Mansion has little to offer save its smug namedropping and, despite their best efforts to make it more organic and moving, If You Wear That Velvet Dress sounds just as hollow and calculated as anything else on the album.
In spite of these myriad defects, however, Pop isn't wholly bereft of merit. While just as egregious with regards to the emotionally distancing, numbing treatment they receive, tracks like Discotheque, Do You Feel Loved, Mofo and Last Night On Earth are at least somewhat catchy, studded with enough hooks to make them enjoyable. There are no true immortal U2 classics on the album but some of the material is quite solid, infused with the group's customary craftsmanship for melodies if not for emotions.
The group had simply lost sight of what had once made them a stellar rock outfit. Whereas on Achtung Baby the attempts at modernization involved a fusion of their old sound with their new one, on Pop they largely neglect their old sound altogether, omitting the facets that had differentiated them from their superficial contemporaries. There had always been more substance beneath the layers of sonic pyrotechnics; this time around they succumb to rock and roll conformity, resulting in a product that's ultimately shallow and unrewarding, a product of its era but not recognizably a product of U2.
The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the album's best material is concentrated at the very beginning of the record, rendering its later half an ordeal with no reprieve in sight. Thus, after being somewhat enjoyable if not brilliant, the album descends into weaker territory than had ever been present on a U2 LP. The band had, to a degree, retained their fundamental songwriting skills, but this is no longer apparent once the album reaches a certain point, making a merely mediocre record sound utterly abysmal.
And, in the long run, mediocre is precisely what Pop is. Some of the early songs are sufficiently strong to save the album from being a total fiasco, even if that impression may change around halfway through the CD. Even so, despite the bad taste the album's final stretch may leave in your mouth, the good material compensates for the noxious filler to an extent, saving the record from the classification of outright 'bad.' Rather Pop is terminally mediocre, a bipolar affair wherein the better material is never quite as 'high' as the bad material is 'low.'
U2's nineties output had managed to alienate a large portion of their erstwhile audience, meaning that it was time for yet another artistic reinvention for the group; on this occasion, however, the stylistic shift was more an abortion of a failing dynamic than the start of a fresh new direction. Rather than acquiring new fans U2 sought to bring back old ones, and to this end they shed the would be hip, ironic attitude that permeated their nineties material, reverting to their classic deeply earnest, straightforward persona, attempting to restore the emotional, spiritual component that had defined their early work.
This philosophical change, while born of nostalgia for their older content and a transparent attempt to recapture aspects of their eighties material, didn't denote a return to their original style; the album is still inundated with the assorted trappings of electronica and Eno overseen sonic experiments, with a rich, dense sound that was impossible to achieve in the days of Boy and October pervading the affair.
Amazingly this reemergence of more emotional, spiritual qualities doesn't sound forced or manufactured; on the contrary, the album can be quite moving, recalling the days when Bono's voice was enough to propel the listener to instant catharsis. After the soulless Pop this restoration of the old U2 spirit is most welcome, removing the obstructions of hip posturing and fad hopping that had separated the listener from the heart of the band on that outing.
Unfortunately, while the band was able to recapture their old spirit they didn't prove as lucky when it came to the songwriting department. The material on All That You Can't Leave Behind is highly erratic, with frequent lapses into the realm of blandness and tedium.
Worse still, the band repeats their egregious mistake from Pop, situating all of the best tracks at the beginning of the LP; this exacerbates an already problematic scenario when it comes to songwriting, making the later part of the album an ordeal to sit through with only a modicum of rewards for doing so.
It's some relief, then, that the opening four tracks, each one released as a single, are quite strong. The anthemic Beautiful Day is rousing in a way that the group hadn't been since The Joshua Tree, Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of is slight but endearing, Elevation is an entertaining rocker and Walk On, while it lifts its coda from Pink Floyd's Eclipse, is quite moving in its own right.
Sadly the subsequent tracks never measure up to the opening quartet. Nearly uniformly bland, they may be emotionally potent but they're little more than failures from a songwriting perspective, and without enough personality to differentiate themselves from one another the songs simply fuse into a single mass of hookless monotony.
The group tries hard to infuse some elements into the tracks to make some songs stand out but this proves to be a futile endeavor, as these attempts are never derived from skillful songwriting or melodic creativity; this leads to questionable decisions, as, for example, the rocking section of New York simply sounds incongruous, incompatible with the rest of the track, while Wild Honey comes off as a pop song in dire need of some actual pop hooks.
As the second markedly bipolar album in a row, All That You Can't Leave Behind suffers the same fate as its predecessor. The two records are indeed reminiscent of each other in a few respects, as Pop was successful when it married its techno elements to catchy melodies, much less so when the core sound, drenched in electronica, was all it had to offer, while All That You Can't Leave Behind works as long as its emotional numbers are paired with clever hooks but fails when its emotionality and spirituality aren't supported by strong songwriting.
The overall sound of All That You Can't Leave Behind is easier to take than the cacophonous techno beats of its predecessor, but it fails to be much of a progression over Pop; a good sound is certainly a great asset for an album, but it can't compensate for flawed songwriting, and thus no matter how emotionally stirring or spiritually uplifting a CD is its overall quality is still contingent on the composing efforts of the group that spawned it.
It's all too obvious that U2 is pretending that the nineties never happened. While Achtung Baby was a huge success on a commercial, critical and artistic level, Zooropa (unjustly) and Pop (somewhat unjustly) were derided as absolute failures, functioning as damning evidence in the case against the Irish quartet. While the group's image would subsequently recover thanks to the (also somewhat unjust) success of All That You Can't Leave Behind, it's apparent that U2 felt that in order maintain their current status of critical darlings it would be wise to dispel any lingering memories of their experimental nineties period, hoping that the critical establishment would succumb to a bout of short term amnesia when it came to that period of the group's career, enabling U2 to practice at the art of revisionist history, crafting products that are follow ups to The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree as opposed to sequels to Zooropa and Pop (and even Rattle And Hum would be omitted from these historical records, though that I have less of a problem with).
While disowning an entire stage of their career is an unfortunate development, it's an understandable course of action for U2, a group driven toward reclaiming their past glory when they were heralded as 'the most important group in rock.' Sadly the inevitable product that resulted from this cover up of the nineties, All That You Can't Leave Behind, was a rather tepid listen; they received the accolades and acclaim that they'd coveted during their years as musical pariahs for the album, but this was likely more due to the relief that it wasn't an experimental techno LP as opposed to any intrinsic merits that the record possessed.
Critics and fans alike, however, had conveyed their message with the utmost clarity; they preferred this new incarnation of the band to the nineties model. Ergo U2, a group highly concerned with their critical and commercial reception, interpreted this as a clear sign to continue in the vein of All That You Can't Leave Behind, a decision that's certainly anathema to me. I'm not saying that I would have preferred that the band regress to their techno phase, but hope springs eternal that there could be some form of compromise between the two extremes, or at least some course of action that would result in a product that resembles neither Pop nor All That You Can't Leave Behind.
Therefore, unsurprisingly, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is the natural successor to U2's 2000 comeback album, even going out of their way to make further strides away from their nineties material. Thus the stage is set for another banal, frustratingly inconsistent listening experience; fortunately, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb defies one's natural expectations, offering a product that, while not dissimilar to it predecessor, is at least a good deal more interesting.
At this point U2 seem to have little desire to pen material that rocks with any degree of ferocity, though it's clear that they feel an obligation to provide at least one rocker per album; hence Vertigo is the obligatory headbanger for this outing as Elevation was for All That You Can't Leave Behind. Vertigo is something of a rehash of Elevation, but it's still good fun; the band obviously didn't take it seriously and neither should the listener, not looking for any deeper meaning and simply enjoying the song for its axiomatic pleasures.
Elsewhere songs like the moody Love And Peace Or Else, the energetic City Of Blinding Lights, the absorbing All Because Of You and the bitter Crumbs From Your Table also qualify as decent material; there are no classics on the album but there are some perfectly solid numbers, and by and large even the filler is more intriguing than the filler on their previous outing.
The album certainly has its grating moments, like the closer Yahweh which reveals all its flaws the moment you read the title, but by and large the LP's a decent listen, certainly a more engaging experience than its predecessor. The group employs a stripped down instrumental dynamic, not quite minimalistic but decidedly less bombastic than some of the bloated epics on All That You Can't Leave Behind, and it works quite well; it's apparent that this style is employed to distance the album from Pop as opposed to its more highly regarded immediate predecessor, but it serves, albeit unintentionally, the latter function as well, which helps give How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb its own personality.
The album is also ameliorated by superior track sequencing when compared to U2's last two outings, distributing the strong tracks throughout the set list. It certainly doesn't end on a high note, culminating with the worst track on the album, but at least one will never have the urge to turn the CD off after the first four numbers.
How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is far from a classic, largely made attractive by its superiority to the previous two albums rather than any instrumental brilliance or top tier songwriting, but it remains an interesting listen for far longer than a U2 album had since Zooropa over a decade ago. If anyone approaches the record with inflated expectations they'll doubtless have a reaction akin to my first encounter with All That You Can't Leave Behind, and in truth the CD isn't a major leap from its predecessor; nonetheless it's a decent listen and likely the most one could hope for from U2 at this stage of their careers.
From a presentation perspective, No Line On The Horizon, the closing chapter in U2's noughties trilogy, is immaculate; the band are reunited with longtime mentors/collaborators Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, a venerable pair of aural alchemists and sonic gurus who not only function as producers but also receive co-songwriting credit on nearly every track as well.
With a pedigree such as this it's unsurprising that No Line On The Horizon is bursting with fascinating sonic textures and bewitching atmospherics, further ameliorated by U2's typically adroit performances. While the Edge's guitarwork can be rather conspicuously reminiscent of Dave Gilmour at times (particularly during his solos on Moment Of Surrender), for the most part he preserves his own unique instrumental identity, and on numbers like the stellar Magnificent with his masterful riffage, complete with his signature ringing guitar tone, his technique recalls the guitar pyrotechnics of October-era tracks like Gloria, which is high praise indeed, particularly since he'd long since eschewed such dramatic displays in favor of consummately frustrating (almost criminal) restraint.
Furthermore, the sound of the album doesn't even recall the band's most recent joint efforts with Eno and Lanois, rather hearkening back to the days of The Unforgettable Fire with its uplifting spirituality and emotional crescendos. Thus No Line On The Horizon is a true throwback to the band's days of yore; whereas the pseudo-nostalgia of All That You Can't Leave Behind was satisfied with merely erasing the anomalies that are the group's nineties outings, their newest effort attempts to restore a side of the band that's been dormant for decades, recapturing a lost sense of purpose and vitality that had simply atrophied after years of trend-hopping and incessant artistic reinventions.
Of course, no matter how immaculate the presentation of an album is, it's meaningless if it's not accompanied by true musical substance; no level of sonic artistry can compensate for a profound lack of strong songwriting. Unfortunately, while Eno and Lanois are capable of recreating the band's old sound, no amount of creative guidance can restore the group's old facility for skillful composition. Accordingly, it seems exceedingly unlikely that U2 will ever duplicate highlights like The Joshua Tree, an album that represents the zenith of the band's spiritual era.
This doesn't signify, however, that the band can no longer produce strong work, and thankfully No Line On The Horizon boasts better melodies than U2's previous two outings. The band still relies on its majestic sonic panoramas to mask weaknesses in the songwriting department, but this is a crutch that the group attempt to avoid whenever possible.
Another chief asset on No Line On The Horizon is a renewed interest in experimentation, a phenomenon likely triggered by the group's association with Eno and Lanois. The band aren't hugely adventurous, as their experiments are hardly radical, but after a pair of highly conservative ventures it's refreshing for U2 to even consider taking a more risky approach to music-making, be it the minimalistic recitation that is Cedars Of Lebanon or the multipart sonic exploration of FEZ-Being Born.
No Line On The Horizon distinguishes itself from its post-millennial predecessors from the first notes of the album; instead of opening with a radio-friendly burst of rousing optimism like All That You Can't Leave Behind's Beautiful Day or an instantly accessible, crowd-pleasing arena rocker like How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb's Vertigo, the CD begins with the stellar title track, a decidedly more experimental affair that's just as catchy as the aforementioned numbers yet is nevertheless endowed with considerably more intelligence, artistry and ambition than those fun yet shallow listening experiences.
There is a certain innate intelligence that informs much of No Line On The Horizon, though this is seldom, if ever, reflected in the lyrics, which are little more than an array of quasi-philosophical banalities, overwrought emotional clichés and embarrassingly simplistic political ruminations. Bono had never been in the same league as Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, but it's clear that whatever lyrical gifts he once possessed have obviously deserted him in his old age.
While a liability, these lyrical inadequacies are redeemed by some truly solid hooks and melodies. The previously alluded to Magnificent lives up to its name, a stirring epic of the kind that only U2 can pull off without seeming overly bombastic, bloated or pretentious. The song is a true highlight, and perhaps the best U2 track of the 21st century.
Elsewhere Get On Your Boots is U2's latest guilty pleasure rocker in the grand tradition of such fun yet intellectually bankrupt numbers as Elevation and Vertigo. Sporting a catchy bassline and some suitably idiotic lyrics the song would likely make many cringe in embarrassment, but when approached from a more charitable perspective it can be enjoyed on its own terms.
Breathe is another definite highpoint, a well written pop rocker with some gratifyingly epic hooks, while songs like Moment Of Surrender can be truly moving with their disarming sincerity and directness. What truly makes songs like Moment Of Surrender work, however, is the presence of some solid hooks; without the 'I did not notice the passers-by/and they did not notice me' passage the track would simply be bland atmospherics, but the inclusion of a memorable melody raises the number to a much higher level.
Thus while No Line On The Horizon is not a classic U2 album, it benefits immeasurably from drawing on classic U2 albums. A return to the style of The Unforgettable Fire sounds like a dicey proposition, but it's one that ultimately pays off; the authentic replication of the sound of that album, courtesy of Eno and Lanois, helps elevate the decent but unexceptional material on No Line On The Horizon to a completely different level.
This isn't meant to minimize U2's contributions to their own album; without the solid songwriting that Bono and company deliver, not to mention the superb vocals and adept instrumentation, then No Line On The Horizon would be all style and no substance. Thus it's the merger of the songwriting, performances and production that makes the album truly work, an effort that's greater than the sum of its parts.
Virtually any musical of note is invariably accompanied by the commercial release of its soundtrack. This is the natural course of events, something that's simply taken for granted.
With the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, however, things seem to be different. Instead of coming across as standard procedure, the release of the soundtrack feels like an act of desperation, a futile attempt to salvage something of value from a debacle of epic proportions.
There's no need to get into the sordid details of the show's history, but suffice it to say Turn Off The Dark is the most costly disaster ever to grace a Broadway stage. Nevertheless, a failure of this magnitude will inevitably draw attention to itself. It's this buzz that the show's producers hope to tap into to make at least some cash out of the whole fiasco, knowing that before long the public will lose interest in the entire affair.
Thus the soundtrack was clearly rushed out into stores, and this haste is evident in the album's presentation. The CD is missing quite a few numbers from the musical. Moreover, the tracks present are in a completely random order, a nuisance to those who want to coherently follow what little plot there is.
Bono and The Edge penned the score to Turn Off The Dark, and Spider-Man has always been a perennial pop-culture favorite. Nevertheless, it seems that the musical's producers have lost faith in those factors to attract an audience. Thus it's neither fans of Spider-Man or U2 devotees at whom the soundtrack is targeted. Instead, the CD appears to be simply aimed at the curious, casual listeners drawn in by the show's notoriety.
Still, even if the soundtrack isn't primarily being marketed to U2 fans (to the point that no band members are even mentioned on the CD case), it's Bono and The Edge's involvement that accounts for the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal musical.
The soundtrack arrives hot on the heels of the pseudo-comeback No Line On The Horizon, but needless to say Turn Off The Dark eschews all of the experimental tendencies that make that album worthwhile. Nevertheless, it does feel as if some genuine effort was invested into the scoring of the show, as Bono simply opts to be ambitious on a different level.
It's clear that much of the soundtrack is meant to be moving and emotionally intimate, and it's here where Turn Off The Dark goes awry. A perfect example of this is the two versions of Rise Above. On Rise Above 1, Bono and The Edge manage to tap into some of their power of old, delivering a rousing number that may be bloated but is nonetheless effective. The track doesn't capture the power the duo effortlessly achieved in days of old on albums like The Joshua Tree, nor does it even match the labored but still stirring force of the better songs on All That You Can't Leave Behind. Nevertheless, any time that Bono and The Edge can remind their audience of what they were once capable of they're obviously doing something right, and accordingly Rise Above 1 can most certainly be called a success.
Rise Above 2, however, is a different matter altogether. On this rendition, Bono and The Edge strip away the powerful arrangements of Rise Above 1, apparently attempting to be more emotional and intimate. The result is a bland and banal number that lacks everything that made the first version work. What emotional resonance there had been was the product of Bono and The Edge's masterful arrangements, without which the song has nothing of value.
The culprit isn't the lyrics, as nearly all of the lyrics on the soundtrack are terrible. The problem is that the songs are simply bereft of any emotional heft save when Bono and The Edge pound it into them. Any attempts at achieving intimacy are absolute failures, as the duo are clearly only equipped to handle the 'epic' at this stage of their careers. This makes tracks like If The World Should End and (particularly) No More painful to sit through.
It's when Bono and The Edge abandon the emotional side of things and focus on rocking that the soundtrack really begins to work. NY Debut, which essentially acts as the CD's overture, is quite entertaining, and will probably leave the listener with overly optimistic expectations for what the musical has in store for them. Boy Falls From The Sky falters during its more 'introspective' sections, but compensates for this with a driving rock melody. Neither this track nor any other can be said to measure up to 'classic' U2, but this doesn't prevent them from being enjoyable.
Strangely enough, it's often the villain's songs that work best. DIY World is decent enough, even if it's one of the more overtly 'show tune-esque' numbers on the soundtrack. It's strange to hear Bono and The Edge write in that mode, but they do a sufficiently good job of it that even if one despises musicals one should be able to derive at least a modicum of entertainment from the song.
Better, however, are Pull The Trigger and A Freak Like Me Needs Company. The former is an extremely catchy track that may be intended as exposition but is still a good deal better than nearly anything else on the soundtrack. The song contains some heavy-handed, blatantly polemical passages, but this has little bearing on its musical value.
A Freak Like Me Needs Company stands out as a rather atypical moment on the soundtrack with its darker edge (albeit not as dark as Sinistereo's Joy Division-lite sound) and female backup singers, and this only works in the song's favor. It's another highly catchy track, complete with an irresistible pop sing-along refrain and superb sleazy vocal stylings. The actor (Patrick Page) portraying the character Norman Osborn/Green Goblin consistently shines on all his tracks, and easily eclipses the rather generic and predictable vocals of the two leads.
Despite their quality, however, the show's best numbers still feel like guilty-pleasures when compared to real U2 material. Meanwhile, on a pure entertainment level the soundtrack is heavily marred by its attempts at emotional intimacy. The end result is an album that lacks both the adventurous nature and innate intelligence of No Line On The Horizon while remaining flawed on more superficial terms. A handful of solid tracks guarantees that at least some fun will be had, but I'm hoping that the show isn't an indication of U2's direction going into the future.