Until The End Of The World

Well, until the end of the blog, but that seems too trite and rubbish a pun and I’m not a British tabloid journalist, thus having limits to this thing. There’s several things to say here both about the blog and the blog content. Firstly, the blog idea, which, as established on the About page, is pretty much stolen and adapted. In any event, it was quite an idea, and I hope I’ve managed to make that idea faintly useful in its new context. I like to think that a) at least the utter neophytes to U2 would learn something from here, and b) that I got better at this as I went on and ended up at what were pretty much what I reckon were increasingly U2’s better songs (unlike Matthew Perpetua at Pop Songs 08, I’ve made no pretense of claiming these are utterly random; songs such as “Numb” and “Discotheque” were coming last all along). Being a complete lack of a journalist, musical or otherwise, this was a slightly insane undertaking, albeit one strangely rewarding in itself.

Secondly, if you have any views, a difference of opinion or spot any mistakes, factual or spelling, feel free to voice them.

As for blog content, inevitably the only thing here left to ponder is albums. And as chronological order makes as much sense as any, that makes Boy first.

There’s two startling things about Boy from two differing angles. If you’re used to, primarily or exlusively, Achtung Baby and beyond, it’s that the debut is positively Neolithic. U2 were even keen to utilise technology at least minimally from the mid-1980s onwards, but here a song is remarkable or different should it utilise anything other than the standard rock setup of vocals, guitars, bass or drums. “I Will Follow” is a pretty slick operation here, because it uses actual sound effects, like that of a rolling bottle. Woo.

The second aspect is clear if you know the band better, or more specifically, are aware of their 70s guise. Frankly, U2 in 1978 were terrible; a shouty, techniqueless singer typically tried to drown out a drystone wall of guitar, while a rhythm section swayed drunkenly. Songs like “Boy/Girl” from the Three EP suggested the band had tightened up by late 1979, but plenty of bands are tight and still rubbish. Yet a year later an album came out that is, genuinely, good. Possibly very good. Certainly, Rolling Stone’s four-and-a-half star review is not entirely wrong, at least. And the album simply has no right to be this good, considering track record; what Boy shows, then, is that debut albums are all about timing – a year earlier, and U2 would have become another small indie band, destined to break up around ’86.

What October shows, however, is that even the biggest and best bands can have a difficult second album. That said, what’s become clear to me now, with extra listening, is that less of the album than I thought is actually downright excruciating; if it has real issues, it’s that too much of it can be forgettable or too similar to Boy not to want to, well, listen to Boy. The clumsy application of theology also drags it down, though, even if not as much as you might think; yes, Bono’s a bit of an idiot for feeling the need to randomly insert the “lamb of God” lines into “Tomorrow”, which is almost as random as the Gaelic in “Another Time, Another Place” but not nearly as intriguing.

Overall, I most suspect that time, resources and slight spiritual naivety ultimately cripple the album. Looking at the tracklisting right now, I have to admit that I now have no idea if I know whether I know how “I Threw A Brick Through A Window” goes, or whether a particular song I’m thinking of is “Rejoice” or “Scarlet”. And it’s not that the songs are about God that makes them the problem; it’s that the situations portrayed – I’m A Believer, You Should Be Too – have absolutely no tension behind them, the kind the band would later use with “When Love Comes To Town”, “Wake Up Dead Man” or “Crumbs From Your Table”, and as a result they can lean uncomfortably close to the MOR of CCM.

As even the band has pointed out, they were lucky to have started in the 1980s, where label contracts were worth something and bands weren’t dropped as soon as A&R get uneasy (see the modern example of Palladium). In any event, U2 wouldn’t have been two remarkable if they hadn’t delivered on the next full-length. By ‘delivered’, I mean coherency, diversity, technical ability, profundity, experimentation and songs that would still be talked about a quarter of a century later. And that certainly appeared with War; not only had the band finally drawn together all that made them a clear identity, but they’d amplified it; all the same, the difference between, say, “Like A Song…” and “Drowning Man” ticked the diversity box. And in any U2 compilation, there pretty much has to be either “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or “New Year’s Day”. It’s pretty much the law. War is often regarded as the first U2 album that could possibly be a contender for either a Classic tag or greatest U2 album, and this assessment’s accurate. That said, the album does trail off at the end both in quality and thematically, with “40” making more sense live than it does on record. Overall, though, it was easily their best record yet.

Yet War is also, even in its second half, an album of bombast and noise, to a degree. It’s no accident that the strongest covers of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” tend to crank the noise up further (Saul Williams’ recent attempt on The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! springs to mind). To a degree it cemented the band’s image of being overearnest and possibly downright preachy, an image that, to an extent, they’ve never entirely shaken off. In any event, a change was due, and getting Brian Eno on board for the next album was quite an achievement, especially considering that it apparently took a huge degree of encouragement. Considering Eno’s career afterwards, it possibly should be asked how much this one act has altered rock history; without this act of persuasion, there’d be no Joshua Tree as we know it, and with different producers, or just Lanois alone, U2 may have gone in a vastly different direction altogether, possibly a similarly successful one, possibly a disastrous one.

In any event, The Unforgettable Fire is actually a more radical shift than an initial listen reveals. That it went on to sell less in the US and roughly the same elsewhere as War demonstrates this, considering that “Pride” was arguably the biggest U2 hit to date. Yet “Pride” is a slower, more stomping song than anything before, and no previous U2 album would have had the likes of the hazy “Elvis Presley And America”, or the slow-burner of “Bad”. Bono argued that the five-year roots-music-exploration exercise that followed came because U2 had no roots of their own, that they had “come from outer space”, and listening to “4th of July”, you really can almost believe that. The Unforgettable Fire might be an album that took rock music into a new dimension, as bold a claim as that sounds. As a Briton, I can actually place Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures within the rain and gloom of Manchester; but Fire is not in any way chanelled from Dublin. It’s U2’s most daring album of the 1980s, and I’ll dare to claim that it’s their best too. Not all songs succeed, but it’s bravery that should be applauded.

As you may well predict, then, I don’t regard The Joshua Tree to be U2’s finest album, although by no means is it a failure or a great step backwards. The main issue is that it is somewhat patchy in the first two-thirds, with only the brilliant closing trio of songs really being a perfect run; there’s no doubting the power of “Streets” but it’s the compassion of “Mothers of the Disappeared”, the multi-layered poetics of “One Tree Hill” and the drama and ambiguity of “Exit” that form fifteen minutes of brilliance here. It could, of course, all be due to my tendency to be sceptical towards those critics’ lists; you know the sort, the 100 Greatest Albums of All Time, which all tend to put Joshua Tree around number 9, and all too often OK Computer number 1. The Tree seems forever to be the preserve of casual fans, classic rock radio and (shudder) the U2charist. It’s not that I’m contemptuous of those things (well, except the U2charist), it’s more that I feel it is, at times, too easy an album. It probably comes through in the songs I commended above, in fact – U2 are, and can be, more complex and challenging than “Still Haven’t Found” suggests, just as Radiohead have been more challenging, complex and cerebral than OK Computer‘s somewhat one-dimensional conceptualisation suggests. But that’s another matter. Maybe it’s that those sorts of albums are too radio-friendly to be striking, odd, eccentric, and all the features that continue to be there once a hook has normalised. Either way, it’s not an easily diagnosed gripe, but it’s there.The likes of “Running To Stand Still” remains great whatever the issue is.

Rattle and Hum swiftly followed, and of course it was always going to be lambasted if it wasn’t up to the Tree‘s standards. The album is a sprawling mess, to a degree – it’s easy to forget that it’s a double on vinyl, but it shows how much is there. I can’t help but feel, however, that with a studio version of “Silver And Gold” and with the live tracks cut, it’d be a better album – still an uncool one, still not a critically acclaimed one, but with much less fat on it. Its achievements (in my world, at least) aren’t to be discounted, though. “Angel of Harlem” manages to get my Mahleresque (read: moody fucker) tendencies to appreciate horn sections, “All I Want Is You”, although simpler lyrically, has the kind of musical build that possibly outdoes “Bad”. There’s a pious slant on it that, whilst not always appealing, nonetheless is less annoying than on October. And of course, “Bullet The Blue Sky” is a better song here than its constricted, walled-in Tree counterpart. Even so, it’s an interlude, something the band could not have carried on doing, and that much is very obvious. I like, possibly love at times, Rattle and Hum, but in no way do I ever desire a Rattle and Hum 2. The band clearly did it as a one-off, and were definitely wise to do so.

Next, of course, came the album hailed as one of the greatest comebacks ever. What we’re now well aware of, and were slightly aware of at the time, is that it nearly cost the band itself. The central debate was between that of either modernisation, through electronica, through taking in Madchester and acid house and other spearheads of what would become the 1990s, or through tradition, Led Zeppelin and Cream and the influences that started U2 in the first place. And it turns out that neither side won, leaving behind an album that was more complex than a victory would have produced. The only thing that was left simple was the image change, helped very much by the slightly silly album title of Achtung Baby. It could’ve been worse, of course – whilst the ever-present possibility of naming it Man appeared, there was also the proposal of 68 And I’ll Owe You One.

Most critics tend to remark at (or just plain acknowledge primarily) the drum loops and programming integrated into the otherwise rock setup, and to be fair this is actually a remarkable feature that has meant Achtung Baby is remarkably modern sounding, even today, especially compared to, say, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica or Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine. Yet sonically, a point has been missed by simply expressing this. In truth, it’s probably no coincidence that Adam appears on the cover (almost) naked, because this album pretty much moulds around him; his playing barely changes, and barely needed to. Larry suddenly drums in that funkier manner he’s never entirely dropped since; Edge still avoids chords but becomes more of a virtuoso on the quiet (notice, for example, the greater tendency towards solos, and particular ones that work. What is “The Fly” without one?); Bono, meanwhile, seems to realise himself further as a lyricist. There’s no division of the political and personal anymore – gender politics, the end of the Cold War and terrorism all seem to be there, even as they’re not openly sung about. Usually Achtung ends up ranked 2nd amongst U2 albums among mainstream critics, and that means I come closest to agreement with this album; I’d put it at least 3rd. Why the conservatism? Well, it’s not all perfect. For one, certain tracks are overshadowed by what surrounds them (“So Cruel”, for one) and the sequencing seems a little dubious at points. I feel that “One” turns up too early, though where else I’d put it I’m not sure. “The Fly” should probably be the penultimate track. And so on.

I never went to a ZooTV gig (too young to know it was on at the time), but the deranged, sprawling postmodernity and seriously flippant nature of it still comes through in low-res YouTube. It also comes through on rapid follow-up Zooropa, which is essentially something I think all major bands should do every so often – actually give themselves less time, and more discipline as a result. U2 have never technically made a concept album, but Zooropa has a clearer narrative than anything before it, and that arguably makes for the most consistent album amongst the discography. What’s really frustrating is that, far from being maligned like Rattle and Hum or Pop, Zooropa has a tendency to get ignored or dismissed as a merely OK album.

Whenever a brief audiovisual run-through of U2 occurs on television documentaries, this part often seems to literally be represented with the Edge’s face getting squashed by feet and nothing more – probably not even a snippet of “Numb” lest it scare anyone who finds “Streets” edgy or who can’t bear to have their image of U2 as OTT, self-righteous, pious crusaders challenged. And this album doesn’t half challenge it, too. First openly religious reference? Track seven. Before that we have a song that, to all intents and purposes, seems to be about porn, the Edge rapping, Bono in campy falsetto over Germanic disco, some dubby effects and bass, a horde of marketing babble over slightly sinister piano vamping, and one of Bono’s favourite U2 songs ever. Quite simply, Zooropa has more ideas crammed into its first half than some double albums do, and its second half still manages to have some incredibly powerful stuff too, be it the quietly menacing “Daddy’s Gonna Pay…”, the low-key “The First Time” or “The Wanderer”, in which the band discover that Johnny Cash’s ideal soundscape is a series of bobbing synthesisers. The Unforgettable Fire twisted rock into a new shape, but with Zooropa U2 realised an electronica album of extraordinary diversity long before the Chemical Brothers got Exit Planet Dust together, let alone before rock bands started jumping on board en masse.

Original Soundtracks 1 is the point where U2 went too far, if you believe Larry Mullen, although I can’t help but feel that this is only occasionally the case. For starters, there’s the fact that “Miss Sarajevo” and “Your Blue Room” would’ve both been brilliant singles, even as the latter was dropped from such a status. “United Colours” is pure brilliance in its build, and “Elvis Ate America” is so plain bizarre that it deserves to exist. On the other hand, the last three songs possibly should have seen their way into actual films; along with a few others on the disc, it’s questionable whether they work without pictures, and can sound a little too much like Brian Eno stepping in and offering something fairly, well, Enoesque. Certainly “Plot 180” or “Ito Okashi” stand out as being as such, with (I’ll keep plugging it, you can’t stop me) “Viva Davidoff” being a better choice, a brilliantly disjointed number that’s unfortunately been made more obscure than this album anyway. Overall, this is the weakest U2 album of the 1990s, although, competition considered, there’s little shame in that.

U2 have often, if not almost constantly, been damn sharp on the business side of the music industry, which makes the marketing cycle for Pop an oddity filled with use of the word “although”. Although “Discotheque” had a great video, it was always going to alienate those in the Deep South or Midwest US with its camp disco irony. Although “Staring At The Sun” is a worthy single, it had a crap video. Although PopMart had a giant self-propelled lemon-shaped mirrorball, the tour was booked early and stuttered for much of its early dates. Although…actually, putting out “IGWSHA” as a single in December was just a plain rubbish idea. Incredibly, some of the negative press at the time accused U2 of jumping on the bandwagon of electronica, which showed how much attention they’d been paying. The rest of the press actually gave the album quite a blessing, with Rolling Stone saying it was some of the best music of their careers, and the NME claiming U2 to actually be a cool band, for the first time ever. The Times claimed it was U2’s first great album. When the English-speaking world started to reject it, however, Pop became the black sheep of the discography, rated in or sometimes below October territory. More than a decade later, there are signs of a second bout of revisionism underway; it’ll probably never be held with Joshua Tree reverence, but Pop is becoming respectable, increasingly seen as the last U2 album to be daring and left-field by some (see Stylus’ Playing God article, which merges it with Zooropa) or as somewhat of a flawed classic (Q Magazine). The album, then, with the oddest past.

It may also be the album with the oddest content. Where Zooropa is a toddler pumped up on blue Smarties, Pop is seemingly the weary adult in therapy (“Mofo”‘s Underworld-like rampage), possibly needing too much medication just to keep going. Pop seems to have a narrative, even as it has no concept, passing through nihilism such as “Last Night On Earth” to Bono’s most interesting song about God ever (yep, ever), “Wake Up Dead Man”. Is this a man who’s giving God one last chance before turning away? Is he calling on Jesus because he cannot (or will not) deal with wordly issues on his own, abdicating his own responsibility? Or is he even an extremist waiting on the apocalypse? It could be all three, simultaneously. Those who whinge about the tunes disappearing forty minutes ago are missing the point; “Still Haven’t Found” is wimpish in its brief questioning compared to this, far less in the ballpark of High Drama, far less honest and with-all-guns-blazing. And has far less interesting a guitar part to match.

It’s always going to be an oversimplification, but my basic attempt to sum up the 90s effectively runs that Achtung Baby has the songs, Zooropa has the consistency, and Pop has the best sonics. And to be fair, a lot of Pop does have those moments where the bridge shifts the song entirely – “Last Night on Earth”, where rock gives way to mumbled introspection that could almost come from a ballad, or “Miami” where shuffling backward drumming and barrelling riffage give way to thumping forward beats and sinister distortion. Or even “Gone”, for that matter, where the shift is from guitar to piano. With its continuation of ZooTV’s irony, postmodern jump-cutting, ambiguity, uncertainty and doubt bordering on nihilism and its possible self-reference (“Wake Up Dead Man” and “Last Night On Earth” apparently interlinked), Pop is remarkably postmodern. It was badly titled in one sense – particularly towards the second half there’s little that makes sense in terms of radio-friendliness. On the other hand, with the other side of that title, popular culture, there is a sense that the album uses popular culture as a stick with which, bizarrely, to beat popular culture. And it all ends up in a glorious, fantastic mess.

The story after Pop is that, depending on which side of the 90s fence the all-important you/fans/critics/people you happen to meet down the pub reside, U2 either returned to Joshua Tree era glory, making albums comparable to said classic, possibly albums that were in some respects better, or else they drifted off into the MOR wilderness and became just another chart act, responsible for the increasingly bland, wimpy lineage of bands-that-stretch-the-definition-of-“rock” of Coldplay, Keane and Snow Patrol (amusingly with one having Brian Eno among the booklet credits and another with Jacknife Lee a relatively long-time producer). Like all characterisations or stereotypes, neither of these views are entirely wrong, but I’m naturally not prepared to accept either of them in their entirety either. Given my slight lack of Tree worship, I’m prepared to say that “Elevation”‘s complex guitar interweaving, “In A Little While”‘s bizarre R&B touches and “Love And Peace Or Else”‘s glam stomp all deserve repeat listening and couldn’t have fitted on the Tree in the slightest. What helped/burdened them, too, was Bono’s oft-misquoted line (for some reason, the upcoming bit in italics seems to so often get missed out) about reapplying for Biggest and Best Band in the World.

All That You Can’t Leave Behind, U2’s most preposturously titled album to date, came out at the turn of the century, its first inside page photo inspiring this blog’s title and the reviewers saying it was a return to Joshua Tree form (either in quality or feel, at any rate). This was clearly bollocks, and whilst still not accurate I’m much more prepared to accept the band’s PR of the time, which came up with the neat term of “titanium soul”. The material in question is probably silicon, actually, given the whirring at the end of “Beautiful Day” (and the motorik beat running through it), or the similarly digitised opening to “Peace on Earth”, and endless other background synthesisers or string loops or pads or other bells and whistles (although I’ve never actually heard bells and whistles amongst those overdubs). The price of any band getting older is that they tend to lose immediacy and replace it with subtlety and detail, and U2 are no different with this; they’ll never be able to be as blunt as they are with, for example, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, but “Stuck In A Moment” is the kind of smart song about suicide they couldn’t have achieved back in the early 80s (funnily enough, “A Day Without Me” kinda proves this). ATYCLB is the positive to Pop‘s negative (or to be more nuanced, as would only be appropriate, it’s the Vespertine to Pop‘s Homogenic. Although that does require knowledge of Bjork.), and where the risks and plays are subtler. It takes a while, for instance, to realise that “Wild Honey” really is a bit atypical for album-territory U2, and that “In A Little While” actually has a proper hip-hop beat going behind it. Its conservatism does, in the end, somewhat hold it back, but ATYCLB is neither a masterpiece nor a terrible piece of MOR; it’s too reserved for the former and too interesting for the latter. It’s effectively their Sibelius work – hardly avantgarde, sure, but more radical than it initially seems.

No, the truly classicist album (to a degree – even here, the picture’s murkier) is How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, which, considering its charged title, couldn’t help but come across as initially disappointing. There was then a point where I did react the other way, taking it to be a relative career high, but now I’ve realised that it’s really somewhere in between. Some journalists at the time bought the PR that it was a return to Boy; it wasn’t, not least because there’s too many overdubs (i.e., there were overdubs). Others regarded it as a continuation of ATYCLB, which is only partly true too. What’s clear is that the band started from a hard-rock remit a la Led Zeppelin (“All Because of You” and “Native Son” were early recordings), and then ended up sliding towards the occasionally MORish tendencies of “Yahweh” or “A Man And A Woman”. I can’t help but feel, however, that aiming for one of these paths more would have been wiser, making for a more unified album, and judging from the best songs, they should have aimed for the harder side of things.

Of course, this is also a sweeping generalisation; “Crumbs From Your Table”, for instance, is a brilliant political discussion that is definitely deserving of album space, even as it totally fails to rock hard. To say that Bomb was U2’s weakest album in 16 years isn’t, from my perspective, damning; rather, it’s to say that the run beforehand has been quite something. Overall, though, there’s a Rattle and Hum element to it – it’s an album of very likeable, big-hearted songs that, nonetheless, aren’t really radical or unusual enough to regard it as a candidate for Greatest U2 Album. As much as the band says otherwise, even Zooropa sounds like a grand statement, which Bomb does not; it touches on politics, personal issues and religion, but it doesn’t tie them together in any grand thesis.

Even U2 acknowledged the Rattle and Hum nature of Bomb, a statement from Bono last September openly regarding the next album as being the next Achtung Baby.

As should be obvious to long-time readers, this blog is currently undergoing some “shakin’ up and some fixin'” </palin> and as a result it should end up with more, erm, hope and change(?) </obama>. In any event, the nature of this page might change, and it’s possible that it’ll become more detailed. In any event, at some point NLOTH will end up drafted into it.


One Response to “Until The End Of The World”

  1. ****The story after Pop is that, depending on which side of the 90s fence the all-important you/fans/critics/people you happen to meet down the pub reside, U2 either returned to Joshua Tree era glory, making albums comparable to said classic, possibly albums that were in some respects better, or else they drifted off into the MOR wilderness and became just another chart act, responsible for the increasingly bland, wimpy lineage of bands-that-stretch-the-definition-of-”rock” of Coldplay, Keane and Snow Patrol****

    Mark me down in the latter opinion category…

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