As the lead single to How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, “Vertigo” initially seemed disappointing to me; having become well familiar with the band’s 90s output between the gap between the single and ATYCLB, I was hoping for something adventurous. It took a while to realise that on a certain level, it was – U2 have hardly ever launched themselves into actual hard rock, their 90s distortion often being either art-rock effect or a neo-glam heaviness that didn’t actually suggest power. The other key thing, of course, is brevity – at 3:11 (single version to up the ante on “Sometimes…”‘s pointless radio edit) or 3:14 (album version), this was in fact U2’s shortest album track (outside of Passengers, where the shorter songs tended to be, in any event, Eno-dominated) in over 15 years, and overall one of the shortest U2 songs going generally. And sheesh, a few seconds of this is Larry counting off.

Ostensibly this is meant to be, to quote Bono precisely, “a club called Vertigo with all these people in it and the music is not the music you want to hear and the people are not the people you want to be with.” And yes, it does on the whole reference this idea, but you’d think the video would reflect this somehow, and it mysteriously doesn’t. As particularly illustrated from 1:44 onwards, there’s plenty of imagery of jet trails behind the band members, camera footage suggestive of speed, and upheavals of earth in a desert-like place, all of which suggest war. I’m not saying that the song itself is some great commentary, but given the nature of “Vertigo” as a dark-ish song about something not that consequential, and given the very timely content of the video, and indeed the fact that U2 songs are not averse to working on multiple levels, it’s not impossible. Aside from all this, though, “Vertigo” is utterly U2-like as a song, which is to say that, even if the song is a failure (I contend that’s definitely not the case), then it’s not for want of trying. And of course the Spanish (1,2,3,14 and the Hola!) is slightly embarrassing and awkward, but U2 have never been afraid of potentially looking stupid, so any mockery is water off a duck’s back, or maybe more accurately, machine gun fire off the armour of a rumbling tank, plowing relentlessly off a battlefield.

Which isn’t a bad metaphor for the main guitar riff (which the bass doubles), even if it takes me back to war imagery again. Detractors (there’s always some) accuse it instead of being too much like Sonic Youth’s “Dirty Boots”. See for yourself, although personally I don’t buy this; it rolls a lot more, it sounds smoother (“smooth” isn’t exactly the adjective for any hard rock riff, but Edge is possibly the guitarist I reckon could most likely pull off a smooth metal riff, for example, considering his tendencies as a player).

Ultimately, though, what really makes “Vertigo” a triumph is that it doesn’t move too far away from what it openly tries to be. There are in fact no overdubs until over two minutes in, a good three-quarters of the song un-messed about with, and the synth fuzz that Jacknife Lee plasters over the end doesn’t seem pointless either. Like all great U2 songs, a grower.


~ by 4trak on September 20, 2008.

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