Disclaimer: There is a review buried in the middle of this opinion column. Talking about music is like dancing about architecture, so says Steve Martin... the comedian. Anyway, it's my intent to not only give you an idea of whether or not to buy a new record, but also describe where it fits in what is arguably the most consistently acclaimed career in music history.
I did U2 like the hippies did the Dead. Boy was the second rock record I ever bought. I stayed up because Night Flight would show Under a Blood Red Sky over and over again. I camped out at a friend's house to watch Live Aid just in case they did "Pride" (ultra-conservative Cazenovia, NY refused to subscribe to MTV). I went to consecutive shows in Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo on the Joshua Tree tour. I saw Rattle and Hum in the theatre on opening night. I was there for Zoo TV.
Dude, I had the freakin' Unforgettable Fire denim jacket.
I was also there through the dark Mephisto days. Overblown Zooropa and sophomoric "Lemon." Back when Bono declared they wouldn't be playing the older songs anymore. When they kept letting Edge sing.
Then Pop had all the makings of a career-ending moment. It was their 2 Legit 2 Quit. It was an over-the-top, consumerism-as-anti-consumerism, masturbation-packaged-as-irony situation.
Thus, All That You Can't Leave Behind was a sort of payoff. A little dry, a little boring, but a lot more guitars and that was enough.
Six months ago, when I read that the next album would be produced by Steve Lillywhite -- the same who produced the holy trinity Boy, October, and War, as well as Peter Gabriel and XTC, including Black Sea, maybe the penultimate no-wave record -- I flipped.
So on November 23rd, on my lunch break, I formally lifted my 22-month embargo on the major labels and purchased How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. And since it had been so long, I bought the super-deluxe-special-edition DVD and book package.
Which is really cool.
Of course, I made 37 copies for my personal use and left them on my coffee table where they were, and I can't confirm this, stolen by close friends, associates, and/or ninjas. Plus, I immediately reinstated the embargo.
Bono would want it that way.
First, let's get "Vertigo" out of the way. It certainly rocks. Although it comes across as a little hammy (Catorce?). Plus, I've heard it three-thousand times thanks to that Apple commer... promotion.
There's a bone to pick amidst that. Yes, it was a good idea and a nod to the changing marketing domain of music. Yes, it was very well done. Yes, radio and video (what's left of both) probably would have ignored this record. Yes, embracing the emerging digital format is a stellar idea.
But it's STILL a commercial for the iPod. No matter how veiled, how cool, how cutting edge the product, or how transparent the actual pitch.
At the end of the day, if I can forgive them for Pop, I can forgive them for this. Reportedly, no money changed hands. U2 gave them the song, Apple bought the air time. A side deal was cut to create the U2 iPod and the digital collection of a U2 compleat exclusively for iTunes.
So it's a commercial, but it's not a commercial for Burger King (I'm looking at you, Modern English.)
Pre-release reviews for Bomb have been nothing short of ecstatic. Reverent, even. The record is great, and there's no arguing that (unless, admittedly, you have a bug up your ass about Saint Bono, and, that being the case, go buy another Limp Bizkit disc and get off his jock.) I've read two reviews so far where the writer stated that Bomb was an instant classic, and ranks right up there with The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby as the best U2 records.
One problem. They aren't.
War is, quite simply, the best example of music and voice ever put to tape in the rock era. This record successfully bridges angst and maturity, punk and rock, acoustic and electric, spontaneity and polish.
Boy is an amazing debut. Every song shines, even the sketchy "An Cat Dubh," and you can hear the genius in Edge just starting to take root. Bono is probably the weakest link in the group at this point, but still shines on "I Will Follow," "Shadows and Tall Trees," "Out of Control," and especially "Another Time, Another Place."
The Joshua Tree. There's a reason why this record vaulted the band to biggest-in-the-world status. Again, every song is absolutely solid, and this record will mark the apex and the end of the "U2 sound."
Here is where Bomb fits -- the best of their truly great albums. In time, it may be considered a masterpiece. It has amazing moments, like the melancholy, almost Westerbergian "Miracle Drug," the sheer beauty of "City of Blinding Lights," which is a little Coldplay and kind of smart-'80s-Euro pop. Layers on simple layers, what U2 does best. The rest of the songs are also solid, with maaaaaybe "Love and Peace or Else" being not only heavy-handed (there's Saint Bono again), but even worse, musically kind of a throwaway. "Crumbs From Your Table" and "Original of the Species," however, more than make up for that, with old-school Edge guitar, shimmering and echoed, and melodies and hooks that are incomparable.
I have some smaller complaints. They've been writing "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own," since "With or Without You." This is the slow-burner, emotional-roller-coaster, change-someone's-life song that brought a lot of mainstreamers into the U2 demographic. It's "All I Want Is You." It's "One." But this is all right. It gets a little funky in places. Not Prince funky. Maybe Hall and Oates funky. But not as gay.
Also, there's not a single spontaneous moment on this record. Not a shout, not a cough, not a laugh, not a lick that wasn't planned, produced, redubbed, and mastered to the brink of mechanical.
Finally, and most minor, stop doing that octave-under double on the lead vocal. It's played.
Under a Blood Red Sky. Live albums usually suck. This does not. Captures them at the peak of performance without all the video screens and giant lemons. You can actually hear the thickness of the connection between band and fan.
The Unforgettable Fire. Very arty and complex in some places. But it has "A Sort of Homecoming," "Pride," "Bad," and "Wire."
October is the height of U2 spontaneity in the studio. Legend or reality says that someone stole Bono's notebook a week before the session and that he was writing lyrics between takes. Shows. In a good way.
Achtung Baby would be a masterpiece if it didn't drone on in places. Some of the songs are too long with no reason to be that long. I always come off sounding like I'm bashing this record, but I still think it's great.
All That You Can't Leave Behind. Please call it a comeback. And don't ever stray like that again.
Rattle and Hum. Highlights like "Heartland" and "All I Want is You," drowned way out by "Van Diemen's Land," "Silver and Gold," and a lot of preach with not enough sonic.
Zooropa. Sophomoric and lazy.
Pop. Crap. I read where Larry is trying to find time to finish this the right way. Larry. Don't. When you're making music as good as the songs on Bomb, keep looking ahead, and we'll forgive this just like Beatles fans forgive the collected subsequent works of Paul McCartney.
And that is the strength of this band. After face-planting so miserably, they put out a brilliant, cohesive -- maybe classic -- record without either drastically changing their sound or getting all gimmicky. And in doing so they've accomplished something the Stones, the Who, the Eagles and all the rest of them could not.
They've been relevant now for 25 years.
Joe Procopio trades in pop culture and tech culture, allowing him to poke fun at so many things. He's written for a number of online and offline publications from the late, lamented Smug to the fancy-pants Chicago Tribune and also for television. He's a novelist, a shredder, a joker, and a family man. Scoff at joeprocopio.com or follow on Twitter @jproco.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
12.1.04 @ 12:34a
It's already on my Christmas list. Here's a nice little review of The Complete U2 -- the exhaustive collection available thru iTunes. It offers 445 songs for $149. That's about 33 cents per song.
12.1.04 @ 12:41a
To which I should add: I had all of U2's albums on tape (dubbed from friends' LPs) up through Joshua Tree, including some 12-inches of New Year's Day and I Will Follow. I traded 'em all for beer and a staff t-shirt at an Irish pub I frequented, because, well...I needed the beer and they needed the music.
12.1.04 @ 2:05p
it's still painfully obvious to me that you don't own an iPod, hence lack the credibity to postition yourself as needing to 'forgive' U2 for their relationship with Apple and their iPod - the most profound thing to happen to music in quite a long time.
Was it Brook's house you were referring to re: LiveAid? Those were the days...what was wrong with the crowd ventured extended version of Bad?
12.1.04 @ 2:13p
Wait. How the hell did Brook get MTV in Cazenovia? I was referring to a friend from my former days at Catholic School in Syracuse.
I don't own an iPod because no one will give me one. But... I was an early adopter of the mp3 player for the auto. I can get 200+ mp3s onto a CD, and that and the PC is where I listen to most of my music.
However, just for you, Jim, I will bow down to the iPod and iPod culture in my glorious return to the Tech Journal in January.
12.1.04 @ 2:51p
Isn't there an article somewhere on this site about how great iPods are?
So, Joe, is this album a buy or what?
12.1.04 @ 5:18p
Brook had the dish in the front yard.
12.1.04 @ 5:24p
Don't talk about Brook's mom like that.
12.2.04 @ 2:00p
The relevancy you speak of is exactly what is missing from so much of today's carbon copy music. Not that I don't like some of it for what it is, like pure bubble gum pop or whatever, but to demonstrate such layers of mainstream diversity as U2 has is pretty incredible, as well as the immense cross-over to a younger audience.
People can balk against mainstream all they want, but if you can maintain most of your artistic integrity AND be popular - well then, that's living.
michelle von euw
12.2.04 @ 11:32p
ohhh...I'd flip Boy with October and elevate Rattle and Hum into the "Greatness" category, replacing it in "Sketchy" with Zooropa (come on, "Daddy's gonna pay for your crashed car" -- greatest. U2. title. EVER) and leaving Pop alone in its own stink in the Garbage pile.
12.4.04 @ 2:01p
While I would agree with moving Zooropa slightly up into the sketchy category if only for "The Wanderer" and the moments on "Lemon" when Bono drops the annoying falsetto, I'd leave October where it is and move Achtung Baby up into the Masterpieces category.
Now I find myself thinking about writing a column about U2's main American rivals during the 1980s. I refer of course to REM.
12.6.04 @ 3:31p
REM. Boring much?