Unknown Caller

•June 17, 2009 • 3 Comments


0:00 – nothing yet. Obviously.
0:01 – an initial drone and the tweeting of birds is the first thing that greets the listener. And that indicates the key difference between HTDAAB and NLOTH; U2 around 2004 would not have edited out the birdsong – there’d have probably been no opportunity for birdsong to turn up.
0:03 – the drone reveals itself to be a loop.
0:12 – the first hit of a “proper instrument”.
0:21 – the first guitar emerges. That first hit actually appears to be two guitars. And emerging through that at…
0:23 – …is a lower, twitchier piece.
0:27 – fret noise, which might be emerging from somewhere else. So this possibly takes three guitars to play. It’s also at this point that the first hints of percussive emerge, more felt than heard.
0:32 – the birds make another contribution.
0:38 – a brief electronic twitch sounds.
0:41 – iterated four times, spliced with a brief phrase, is a kind a moan from one of the guitar lines.
0:58 – first actual drumming.
1:02 – vocals – “sunshine, sunshine”. Not, in and of themselves, terribly informative; the descent of the melody could be satisfaction or disappointment, although we’re possibly given enough clues later on.
1:06 – the electronics make an extra contribution, bleeping a slight fuzzy tenor.
1:16 – full band entrance, and still no actual lyrics immediately afterwards, which possibly makes this U2’s longest instrumental stretch since OS1 in 1995.
1:21 – many have accused this riff of sounding too much like that which opens “Walk On”. I only partially accept it, to be honest, and it’s the curling flourish at this point that’s the best counterargument to it.
1:24 – the first of many “oh”s.
1:33 – it’s still effectively the same riff, kinda, that started at 1:16. Or maybe it’s two, worked out AABA, with the B section starting here. Either way, it’s this elaborate construction which makes “Unknown Caller” a better song than much of U2 this decade.
1:49 – opening words: I was lost. Sure explains the winding intro…which is no bad thing, by the way.
2:06 – perhaps the most quotable lines in the song – 3:33/When the numbers fell off the clockface. Might be another reference to Jeremiah 33:3, or the reverse of it, but it might be there for a symbolic image of breaking symmetry and disorder.
2:16 – that organ sounds fairly R.E.M.-ish. And of course, Accelerate wasn’t a million miles off the likes of “Vertigo”. Clearly these bands have been speaking to each other a lot more over 2007 and 2008.
2:26 – first chorus; musically, both the choruses on this song are similar, but lyrically they’re both different, effectively furthering the narrative – here, the first line is Go! Shout it out! Rise Up! which I can’t argue with, really. But it’s the ABCB’C’D structure of this song, and the often non-linear nature of others on the album, which is what makes NLOTH a keeper – this is an experimental album, but it’s very, very subtle about it.
2:54 – the controversial Force quit and move to trash line. Personally, I like it; the suggestion that this massed, singular voice is some kind of machine adds a menacing edge to what’s ostensibly meant to be some kind of revelation for the protagonist. Not to mention that you just know this line would totally fly with critics if Radiohead had written it.
3:01 – if there’s a weak point in the song, it’s here, a second verse that feels a bit too much like it’s just trying to get to the next chorus. Around 3:20 there’s some vague Led Zeppelin-like guitar fuzzing.
3:33 – second chorus starts, or at least a rising transition to it. Yes, really – I can only imagine this was deliberately planned and it’s pretty cunning. The opening order is Restart and reboot yourself, an activity I recommend to all insomniacs who’ve discovered the drawbacks of analogue timekeeping.
4:24 – that second chorus is pretty long – some 50 seconds, which is one of the longest I’ve heard (it’s up there with Blur’s “Tender”, at any rate). The last line is Don’t move or say a thing, which ends at this point with 97 seconds of music to go. I’m not sure what period of time this song is supposed to cover, but that must mean a lot of thumb-twiddling for the protagonist. Also, cue shitloads of organ.
4:33 – what’s most interesting about “Unknown Caller”, actually, is that despite the 6:03 running time, the vocal section is nested in a 2:44 stretch; in effect, this section masks the fact that the song is constantly building in energy and inertia (and indeed, instruments – see the french horn entering here), until eventually it breaks in the solo (probably the best on the album, actually – from 4:49 to 5:51) and ends with a long organ fadeout. And I’d argue that said fadeout is deserved for what’s probably, despite appearances, the most daring song on the album. Whilst NLOTH is arguably only mildly or subtly experimental for U2, it does nonetheless push further in composition, and this song is the best example of that.

White As Snow

•May 28, 2009 • Leave a Comment

_

Well there was going to be a post today, but it seems Amazon’s algorithm codes have leaked onto (and disrupted) my blog*. Damnit. Anyway, it’s dredged up bits of my other writings** – feel free to read them whilst I contact my lawyer…

You listened to “White As Snow” by U2 (from No Line on the Horizon).

72% of listeners also liked “Hurt” by Johnny Cash (from American IV: The Man Comes Around). Cash’s rendition of “Hurt” is reasonably powerful – we are, after all, talking about a man in his last years. That said, the change of lyrics (to crown of thorns from crown of shit) blunts the impact somewhat; it’s meant to be an ugly, messy song to finish the increasingly ugly and messy (barring “A Warm Place”) The Downward Spiral, and I can’t help but wonder if the song, whilst receiving more attention, has also become a little sanitised.

64% of listeners also liked “For Emma, Forever Ago” by Bon Iver (from For Emma, Forever Ago). Topping many critics’ lists at the end of 2007, Bon Iver’s acoustic works were not precisely revelatory, but they were highly notable, especially for the small touches added amongst the minimalism – “Skinny Love” sounds like U2’s “One” for smaller venues, and the title track of the album has the effect of adding a stately, slightly mournful horn accompaniment, like some sort of inverse fanfare.

51% of listeners also liked “Long, Long, Long” by The Beatles (from The Beatles). The quietest moment on the Beatles’ “White Album” is probably one of George Harrison’s best contributions to the Beatles. Slow, quiet, needs attention, never going to be a single, it may be about God and morality, but it’s left with the capability of not alienating the less pious. Low-key, but strongly recommendable.

46% of listeners also liked “1992” by Blur (from 13). There’s a surprising emotional impact to be wrought from having one or two chords repeat quickly and repeatedly, as Blur found from “Sing” and its partner piece, “1992”. Such a technique has resonated since, and it seems that it provides a brooding atmosphere; the lack of change and slow chug suggests that the protagonist is passing through barren landscape, either physically, or by being emotionally stuck in a moment, as the case may be.

31% of listeners also liked “Storm” by Godspeed You! Black Emperor (from Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven). GY!BE’s screwdriver-guitar sounds have been gone for quite some time now – the band has been on hiatus for six years and shows no sign of quitting – but “Storm” is still one of the most powerful musical pieces of the decade, resonating amongst plenty of imitators in the post-rock scene and even echoing (sort-of) into the mainstream with the momentary similarities in U2’s “White As Snow” – notably with the lines And the water/It was icey – appropriately, given the chilly texture of that sound.

*actually, this is a total lie. I’m attempting one of those pretentious Pitchfork-circa-2001 style pieces, and whilst this may potentially alienate everybody, “everybody” with respect to this site is currently about 7 people a day tops, so it’s not like there’s too much to lose.
**this is also a lie – this is currently the only blog I’ve ever managed to maintain, for some reason.

Magnificent

•April 27, 2009 • Leave a Comment

DISCLAIMER: post might change, etc.

It’s already hit #79 in the US, nearly 20 places higher than previous second single “Sometimes”, and deservedly so; there’s more aggression, urgency, intensity and, well, anything else on it. If there is one thing that causes “Magnificent” to not deserve its name, however, it’s that it feels slightly underutilised; it’s not simply “Pride” with added disco beat, but too casual a listen can give that impression. The Moroccan musicians on the track are somewhat pushed to the back, understandable but not desirable. Even so, what the song loses in production it gains in how direct it is, and the solidness of its beat; ironically, it’s more disco than “Discotheque” which, if we’re honest, wasn’t disco at all, more just some crazy not-yet-laden-with-a-buzzword form of rock. And even whilst I criticise it for production, it’s still possible to pick out the keyboards, the delays, and Bono’s most extrovert vocal on the album, which is inevitably what brings comparison to “Pride”.

Lyrically “Magnificent” seems to usher in a short rock opera which runs through “Moment of Surrender” and concludes with “Unknown Caller” (there’s perhaps an argument to be made that it runs through to “Boots”, but that maybe pushes it – and besides, a trilogy is maybe more poetic). There seems to be the early blooming of love (You and I will make a fire) and possibly an addiction (erm, same line) given the similarities to the following song. This would also be backed up by the slightly slumping ending, which leads it into the next track well.

All of this probably sounds like I’m addressing “Magnificent” purely in the context of “Moment”, which it doesn’t really deserve. Yet perhaps this is a key thing about NLOTH overall – it seems to be less definable in terms of individual songs compared to any other 2000s U2 album, and this is a good thing; the album is certainly more cohesive, more unified. But “Magnificent” on its own is still one of the best songs on the album and, by default, one of the best songs to come from U2 in this decade. If Edge’s solo sounds slightly too close to sounding stereotypically Hawaiian, it compensates somewhat with its brevity; always a guitarist who potentially does too little instead of too much, once again he makes such minimalism an asset. It is perhaps unlikely that I’ll add “Magnificent” to my personal list of U2 classics, but nonetheless, it warrants a solid placing in that second tier.

Breathe

•March 27, 2009 • 2 Comments

DISCLAIMER: screw it, you can figure this out by now, it’s plastered all over the home page…

The title may invoke the subtleties of the Prodigy’s 1997 hit of the same name, but ultimately “Breathe” is perhaps the most representative song on NLOTH musically and lyrically – that is, it’s somewhat more adventurous and less linear than anything off Bomb, without quite going to 90s extremes. Piano that wouldn’t be entirely out of place on a post-Downward Spiral Nine Inch Nails record threads through it, not entirely unlike October’s “I Fall Down”, only here it’s an element rather than a looping standout point. Really, on musical points there are two things that really stand out, the first being the intro, ambiguously rhythmed drumming (I’m pretty sure it’s just 4/4, but it has a certain shuffle that suggests some kind of triplet time going on) and movie-scene cello, and the second being the solo, which whilst not Edge’s best, is certainly distinctive in that it’s the first time (as far as I recall) that he’s moved into something properly wiggling and virtuoso – up the distortion and aggression and it could reach into Kirk Hammett territory.

Referencing Nine Inch Nails and Metallica, though, suggests this is a heavier track than it really is. In truth, it’s more like a less wimpy, more defiant “Window In The Skies” (The people we meet will not be drowned out). Certainly it has that same sway, but more personality, if we’re honest, as Bono’s delivery obsesses over the Chinese economy and, well, the Chinese spread of disease to a globalised world (which happens to datestamp this song fairly hard – H5N1 avian flu isn’t really that big an issue in the media at the time of writing). Given this looming, double-egded-sword presence of China, and the reference to a JuJu man pins this to West Africa, possibly Nigeria. That said, if the 16th June is an important date we can only assume it is to Bono alone, unless he really is wanting to make a big deal of Israel’s adherence to UN Resolution #425 (and don’t think this would be beyond Bono, either).

Still, overall “Breathe” comes close to being a highlight of the album; it balances the awareness of economic and social doom with the audacity of hope well, and whilst it slips occasionally (the songs are in our eyes is an unnecessary recycling from “Miracle Drug”) it’s largely different and distinctive, unafraid to pull out the odd surprise – given the fantastically rattled-off line Coming from a long line of travelling salespeople on my mother’s side I wasn’t gonna buy just anyone’s _____, you wouldn’t necessarily expect cockatoo to turn up, of all things. And dang, it fits as well. And yes, sandwiched between two eerie ballads is exactly where it should go. If I was writing for the NME right now, I’d probably give this a 9/10. Or let’s go Pitchfork on everyone’s asses: 8.7. Very good song, at any rate.

Cedars Of Lebanon

•March 20, 2009 • 1 Comment

DISCLAIMER: Do you really need these, by now? Yeah, opinion might change later on.

“Generally speaking, U2 are most interesting when they step out of their comfort zone, so the un-U2 art and relatively risky musical ideas seem promising. (Then again, there are two songs on here called “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” and “Cedars of Lebanon,” so all bets are off, really.)”
– Pitchfork.com news,  January 16th, 2009.

Initially the above looks like Pitchfork’s usual snarky attitude, but considering that “Jerusalem” (well, more accurately, “With A Shout”) was a song I got out of the way before the Rattle and Hum interludes, then maybe there is potential disaster. Luckily the potential doesn’t convert; instead we get the first above-average album closer since “Wake Up Dead Man”.

Interviews have revealed that this song came about by having Lanois sampling a piece from Brian Eno and Harold Budd’s The Pearl (1984), which Larry added the soft, slightly trip-hop-ish beat to. And listening to this, it does indeed seem that these are the key elements; guitar, bass and even vocals to a degree float over these more solid-sounding elements. Said vocals are, once again, Bono in character, this time a war correspondent. Critics have remarked about how these lyrics aren’t terribly subtle, and admittedly the blatant insertions about headlines and soldiers milling about around tanks aren’t exactly Dylanesque, but in any event it’s a smart way to hide the undercurrent, that of a tired, miserable individual who’s essentially stuck in a moment and a place (I’m here because I don’t wanna go home). There’s ultimately something ghostly about Edge’s backing vocals, too, and this rising sense of paranoia gets close to outright intensity as the final verse strips down to an a capella. In a way, the song (and hence the album) ends abruptly, as exactly what the comments about enemies are meant to mean is left relatively unexplained. This isn’t Bono’s best performance lyrically, and it obviously isn’t lyrically either, but hey, it’s new and different and as such, kudos can be awarded. Indeed, it’s not overall too dissimilar to “Wake Up” in mood, but where that song was despairing, here the feeling is perhaps closer to weariness mixed with fear.

Ostensibly acoustic, the song gradually warps into something increasingly less simple as it goes along (and indeed, that fits the lyrical theme nicely), adding electric guitar, bass, and eventually main synthesisers which have a kind of shining quality to them. In fact, by the second half the whole thing starts to turn ever so slightly Think Tank (the Blur album also recorded in Fez – see “On My Way To The Club”, which has a similar feel), but then, Damon Albarn’s sonic adventurousness and use of characters and persona would be fine things for U2 to be appropriating. “Cedars of Lebanon” isn’t quite good enough to be amongst U2’s best stuff here, but it’s a more than worthwhile song nonetheless.

No Line On The Horizon

•March 17, 2009 • Leave a Comment

USUAL DISCLAIMER: new song, opinions and details may change, yada yada yada.

“For the first time since Zooropa” is a phrase I’ve had to use a few times for NLOTH, and for me that can only be a good thing. Except on this occasion, where it’s merely an apparent thing – for the first time since Zooropa, there’s a title track on the album. ’tis a rather spiffing one, though – it bests “October”, competes with “The Unforgettable Fire” but, if we’re honest, doesn’t beat six and a half minutes of sung and babbled ad slogans.

In a weird way, this happens to have U2 inverting their usual dynamic; the chorus is actually decidedly small-scale here, five distinct words, a low affirmation that doesn’t need to be loudly asserted (indeed, that’s perhaps a sign of confidence that slips four tracks later with the line Listen for me, I’ll be shouting) – what does need shouting about, it seems, is everything else – the love of a good woman, the desire for escape from drudgery, a reach out towards as much possibility as possible. To be fair, this song doesn’t do much more lyrically than the typical U2 song tends to, but the key here is the economy of it; I get more of an impression out of this, and more concrete detail, than “City of Blinding Lights” (to pull a random example), despite it being about two-thirds the length. And starting the first of many, many wordless vocals on this album, Bono flips a usual “oh” into something new by inflecting a sort of pitch bend on it (was he listening to Ikonika at the time? Probably not, but hey, we can but dream for the still-currently-rumoured Songs of Ascent).

As for the music, perhaps my desire to proclaim this song as great-but-not-a-classic originates from the mood of it; there’s a rushing, a feel that it should be soundtracking an epic camera pan over huge, flat and starkly emotive landscape, and I’ve made my views pretty clear on that sort of music. Nonetheless, this isn’t a straight re-write; this could not have come pre-1991, as the guitars here are the most abrasive that the Edge has played this decade. The drumming is suitably urgent too; in fact, if we’re totally honest, the only core band member who seems to get occasionally lost in the fuzz and the fury is Adam. Eno, of course, gets in most noticeably with what seems to be a twitching shiver of a noise during the verses, sounding not unlike some of the whirrings and scrubbings from Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile (this isn’t the only place NIN seems to show up, incidentally; see, for instance, “Get On Your Boots”‘ vague brotherhood with “Discipline”).

Overall, then, “NLOTH” happens to be a damn good opening track, albeit not really in the realm of greatness. Still, there’s a sense that this may be the most adventurous opener to a U2 album since, well, the previous title track, and this can only be a good thing; what’s even better is that there’s little to no dropoff in standards over the next three tracks, which happen to be the longest too. Hell yes.

Stand Up Comedy

•March 11, 2009 • Leave a Comment

WARNING: As a still-current song, opinion may yet change and significant alterations to the post may occur as said opinion changes or new details emerge.

…in which U2 go (slightly – the whole thing always slips into U2 during choruses, solo, whenever it suits and so forth) Led Zeppelin, attempt some approach towards injecting funk and swing into the equation, and conclude the middle trilogy of Lillywhite-produced NLOTH songs designed to both provide a lighter mood and sloganeer a little. And much of it works fairly well, but there’s a slight feeling here that the song could be a bit more outrageous and crazy; there’s a feeling of restraint here. It’s that restraint that, for example, makes a fair chunk of Edge’s solo a bit nondescript (that end bit before the next verse, though? Brilliant). There’s a fair amount of comment, too, about the somewhat gauche line Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady, but whilst it’s not exactly a classic amongst U2 lyrics, it’s better than, say, the shoehorned God is love/And love is evolution’s very best day which sounds a bit too much like an attempt to get Dawkins and the Discovery Institute to come to reconciliation (something that makes ending poverty look like a piece of cake).

All of this, along with the graceless 60isms (endless “love” references, the “soul-rockin’ people” lines that sound like Bono’s trawled through 1967 back issues of the NME) detracts from the real purpose of the song, which is (lyrically) to shake audiences out of apathetic slumber and, as the title and repeated refrain suggests, “stand up” for an issue or a belief (though which is never necessarily made utterly explicit, something I’ve found can switch between universality and frustrating vagueness depending on mood), and inevitably question the world around them. I needn’t quote the Napoleon line.

So does all this work? Well, I joined the ONE campaign after I first heard this song, so maybe. And for all the criticism I seemed to pour on the song above, it could be worse (I mean, thank fuck it isn’t “pop-pickin’ people” that are movin’ on). It’s enjoyable enough whilst it plays, and it shows one of the band’s key post-1991 strengths – had this song emerged in the 80s, there’d have been a rigid straightness to the beat, a sledgehammer of a lyric, and an utter seriousness to their delivery. In an ideal world, it’d finally, once and for all, puncture the U2 image as being relentlessly serious and crusading. Will it happen in the real world? Nah, course not.