"U2 is an original species... there are colours and feelings and emotional terrain that we occupy that is ours and ours alone" - Bono
I Will Follow/Twilight/An Cat Dubh/Into The Heart/Out Of Control/Stories For Boys/The Ocean/A Day Without Me/Another Time Another Place/The Electric Co./Shadows And Tall Trees
"The drums were recorded in the stairwell of the studio's reception area due my desire to achieve 'this wonderful clattery sound'. We had to wait until the receptionist went home in the evenings as the phone rang through the day and even occasionally in the evening" - Steve Lillywhite
I remember seeing U2 in December 1980 supporting Talking Heads at the old Hammersmith Palais. I knew nothing about them, but they appeared to have a huge, enthusiastic following. I had never seen a support band given such energetic, committed support and in such numbers. It must have been as a result of this raw, edgy debut album.
A track I recall from the gig was the opener, the catchy, riffy I Will Follow and singer Bono's charismatic posturing while singing it. I must admit, even then, I always took him with a bit of a pinch of salt. He didn't particularly do it for me, for some reason, but he obviously had something. All the tracks on the album have a considerable amount of post-punk-ish industrial guitar attack, pounding drums and throbbing bass and Bono's haughty but strong, throaty vocals. Twilight fits that description, full of searing guitar and relentless drums. The mysterious, intense An Cat Dubh has an Echo & The Bunnymen feel to it, with those typical post-punk vocals that are impossible to properly describe but instantly recognisable. The backing has hints of Patti Smith's Horses and also Siouxsie & The Banshees about it, too. Even the more sombre tacks like this still have a "who-ho-ho" anthemic chorus refrain in them. For me, there's a lot of Magazine in the riffing and drum sound at the end.
Into The Heart is a slowly building, haunting number the introduces that trademark twangy U2 guitar riff. They were definitely developing a guitar sound that was all their own and it separated this album from others of the same basic ilk. Out Of Control has more of a punky energy to it, with its rolling drums and stabbing guitar riffs. No twangy, jangly riffs on this one. Not until near the end, at least. Again, introducing it then was what was making them different, a regular punker would have carried on as it had begun.
Stories For Boys begins with a breakneck drum roll and some Jam-style bass, before that guitar sound kicks in again. This was an upbeat, punchy number, though and is a little-mentioned song when U2 are spoken of. I quite like it. The Ocean is an ambient short track that ends just as one is starting to enjoy it. A Day Without Me is a catchy melodic number whose upbeat tones are cut apart by yet more guitar virtuosity from David "The Edge" Evans. Even on this Bono has some "bah bah" singalong bits, he treats every song as if it is an anthem. Another Time Another Place is a true post-punk intense song of its time. So very 1980-81. Dark, brooding and just a little pretentious, but also atmospherically captivating.
The Electric Co. has a great kick off riff and some kick posterior drums from Larry Mullen Jr. (always my favourite U2 member). Again it has that rise on the refrain that makes it somewhat rabble-rousing. I remember seeing fans punching their fists in the air shouting "the electric co..." and thought it bizarre at the time. I guess I still would. I love the bit where the beat drops down and Bono sort of improvises. Again, this was something that lifted them above the mass of other bands. Shadows And Tall Trees maybe many people's favourite but I'm afraid I find it a bit dull, lacking the vitality of the rest of the album. It has good bits, even so, particularly the guitar/drum interplay in the middle and towards the end when they go all Doors-like. Overall, this was an impressive debut album, however. U2 were certainly on to something.
Gloria/I Fall Down/I Threw A Brick Through A Window/Rejoice/Fire/Tomorrow/October/With A Shout (Jerusalem)/Stranger In A Strange Land/Scarlet/Is That All?
"I remember the pressure it was made under, I remember writing lyrics on the microphone, and at £50 an hour, that's quite a pressure. Lillywhite was pacing up and down the studio... he coped really well. And the ironic thing about 'October' is that there's a sort of peace about the album, even though it was recorded under that pressure" - Bono
After an energetic, unique among post punk albums, debut from U2 in 1980's Boy, they repeat the formula with this album. It was, in effect "Boy Part Two". It had the same riffy, guitar-driven anthemic attack to it. It was quite inscrutable in places, with not a huge amount of fist-pumping rockers or obvious singles amongst material that I personally have always found a bit dark, atmospheric and brooding. For me. it has always been the least instant of the early U2 albums and the one that requires repeated listens. In many ways it is the band's most raw and edgy album, maybe their most innocently authentic, before the "stadium rock" stuff.
It was also the period when U2 were supposedly a Christian group, due, in some parts to Bono, Mullen and Evans' involvement with a group called The Shalom Foundation. It caused rifts within the group and any steadfastly-expressed religious attachments seemed to disappear quite soon after.
The intricate guitar sounds of the upbeat Gloria (not the Van Morrison/Them song) kick things off in excellent, rousing fashion. I Fall Down is sombre-ish, introspective, almost the very antithesis of the preening "New Romantics" posturing all around them in 1981. This was no Adam & The Ants, Duran or Spandau Ballet. For that reason, it took U2 a while to take off. At the time, they seemed very like Echo & The Bunnymen. The beguiling, fascinating brooding atmospheric rhythms and guitar of I Threw A Brick Through A Window would seem to exemplify that. It is a piece of glorious post-punkery. A lively, more typical early U2 riff heralds in the choppy rock of Rejoice, which has a great pumping drum and bass guitar sound too. Larry Mullen is superb on this track.
Fire continues the same vein, with some of those dubby white reggae Police-style guitar lines that were so de rigeur from 1978-82 all over it. Tomorrow begins with some Celtic-style Uilleann pipes and has Bono at his most plaintive lamenting the loss of his mother, whom he lost as a child, although it develops into some post-punk style rock by the end. October is a brief piano-led virtual instrumental interlude with minimalist, brief lyrics.
With A Shout (Jerusalem) is one of the album's most rocky numbers, in that early U2 style. This was the period when U2 flirted with Christianity and indeed, many at the time claimed them as a "Christian group". This was reflected in quasi-religious songs like this. Indeed, internal strife regarding their religious direction nearly split the group at this time, apparently. Bono was beginning to express pretentions within his lyrics that would dog him for the subsequent years of his career. Sonically, there were some real catchy intricacies in this song, and also in the haunting and haughty Stranger In A Strange Land. Scarlet is instrumentally mysterious and at times beautiful, with a nice piano, laid back guitar and drum sound. Bono's vocal is perhaps a bit to ethereal and plaintive. Is That All? is a punchy, choppy guitar and drum-driven lively number to finish with more of this dubby guitars.
There is nothing really uplifting in this album, though, it has to be said. It is actually a very bleak piece of work. It suits the darkening early evenings of October quite appositely.
Sunday Bloody Sunday/Seconds/New Year's Day/Like A Song.../Drowning Man/Refugee/Two Hearts Beat As One/Red Light/Surrender/40
"They (Kid Creole & The Coconuts) just happened to be in Dublin on tour, so we hung out with them and they came in and sang on 'Surrender'. So it was sort of random – this serious Irish rock band having the Coconuts on their album" - Steve Lillywhite
This was the last of U2's three "post-punk", raw, edgy, guitar bass and drum-driven authentic albums before they decided to experiment with ambient sounds, artless industrial thump and Americana. This is a pure, essential, spiky album. For me, U2 were at their best in this period. While October had seen them veer dangerously close to quasi-religious pretentiousness, this one was bang on the money - hard-hitting, to the point and relevant. There is a serious case for its being U2's best ever album. Maybe it was on this album that they achieved their longed-for "greatness", even more so than on The Joshua Tree. Bono is in protesting mood on this album, and, for once, it sounds totally convincing.
The rousing Sunday Bloody Sunday is well-known by most by now, with its martial drum sound and stabbing violin riffs. One of the great protest songs. A underrated good one is the bassily insistent Seconds which reminds me of something else, but I can never think of what. New Year's Day is superb, full of hooks, catchiness, great bass, delicious keyboards and overflowing with post-punk atmosphere. It is still such a great "winter" song. Helped no doubt by the snowy video that accompanied its release. Check out those guitar riffs half way though and beyond. Great stuff. David "The Edge" Evans at his best. I have always liked the powerful, muscular energy of Like A Song... . There were some awful, synthesiser-dominated albums being put out in the mid-eighties. This was the antidote to that. It was still "proper" guitar and drum based rock, thankfully. Great frantic guitar drum interplay at the end.
Drowning Man features acoustic guitar, a mournful vocal and some fetching keyboard riffs. Lovely bass from Adam Clayton too. Refugee sounds somewhat dated and clumsily clunky now, to be honest, although it is not without its good points, particularly Larry Mullen's powerhouse drumming. Two Hearts Beat As One is a typical U2 early eighties guitar and thumping bass-driven rocker.
Despite its odd backing vocal intro, Red Light is an addictive number with a brief bit of jazzy trumpet right at the end that fades too soon. Surrender is a chugging post-punk rocker with some convincing backing vocals used at the end and some absolute killer guitar. The anthemic 40 has that ambient feel that would be explored much more on subsequent albums - ethereal vocals, throbbing bass, deep, sonorous keyboards.
The albums from this one on would explore different soundscapes, while still retaining some of the best points from these early albums, but nothing came close to the essential energy of this.
THE UNFORGETTABLE FIRE (1984)
A Sort Of Homecoming/Pride (In The Name Of Love)/Wire/The Unforgettable Fire/Promenade/4th Of July/Bad/Indian Summer Sky/Elvis Presley And America/MLK
"We knew the world was ready to receive the heirs to The Who. All we had to do was to keep doing what we were doing and we would become the biggest band since Led Zeppelin, without a doubt" - Bono
I have always felt this album to be a sort of bridging, transitional one between the still raw-is authentic post-punk edginess of War and the polished, commercial The Joshua Tree. This album saw Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois brought in to produce a different type of sound, that retained the trademark guitar riffery and the anthemic delivery but also explored more abstract, ambient sounds. The feel was intended to be more serious, reflective and, oh dear, "arty". There had always been underlying airs of pretentiousness about the band, but after this I went into overdrive and U2, thereafter became a "Marmite" type of band. Love them or hate them. Bono was now in full flow when it came to making ludicrous pronouncements too, (see above) which certainly didn't help.
Personally, despite the reputations of the producers, I have always found the sound to be a bit muddy and muffled on the album. I have to say, it is not an album that has given me as much enjoyment as either "War" or "The Joshua Tree". Or the first two albums in their career, for that matter.
The opener, A Sort Of Homecoming is one which suffers a little from a murky, undefined production. Musically, it has a typically anthemic, rousing style to it and lyrically starts to express thoughts of Irishness and identity. Then we get one of the two true U2 classics on the album - the iconic typical U2 uplifting rock of Pride (In The Name Of Love), the band's tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. Everyone knows it. It's great. Wire is an unsung hero of the album. A track that harks back to the post-punk vigour and guitar attack of the first three albums. It has some excellent guitar work and a good vocal too, a great atmosphere to it. The Unforgettable Fire manages to merge both the glory of the old sound and some of the ethereal, mysterious airs of the new in a beautifully evocative yet at times inscrutable song. Some deep cello orchestration is introduced as the production gets "big" for the first time.
Promenade is one of the first of the "ambient" tracks that float around this album - airy vocals, throbbing bass, swirling keyboard sounds and those recognisable high-pitched repeated guitar notes underpinning. 4th Of July continues in the same vein. Even more stark and mysterious. I remember at the time thinking these two tracks were a bit of a waste of time. I can appreciate them a bit more now, but still feel they were a bit superfluous and that there was better material that could have replaced certainly the latter track.
So, something special needs to happen. It did. Bad is my favourite U2 track of all time. Majestically and slowly building up with that guitar sound, the bass, the slow regular thumping drums and Bono's finest vocal performance. Then there are the beguiling, perplexing lyrics. U2 never bettered this, even after any more years trying.
Indian Summer Sky is an interesting one. It has definite hints of Talking Heads' Remain In Light album, also produced by Brian Eno. The "so wind, blow through to my heart" line is the one that brings the Talking Heads comparison, for me. It is a good song, another of the lesser known but impressive ones. Elvis Presley And America is interesting in its insistent, understated way, but I have always struggled to know just what the heck it is about. It tries to "out-Bad" Bad at the end, though. Certainly it is a track that demanded repeated listens. MLK, another King tribute, is another somewhat throwaway, ambient track with the feel of unrealised potential about it. Its mournful synthesiser sounds hum deeply over Bono's haunting vocals. It is over too soon, however. Overall, despite the sporadic brilliance contained within this album, I feel it just slightly comes up a bit short.
THE JOSHUA TREE (1987)
Where The Streets Have No Name/I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For/With Or Without You/Bullet The Blue Sky/Running To Stand Still/Red Hill Mining Town/In God's Country/I Trip Through Your Wires/One Tree Hill/Exit/Mothers Of The Disappeared
"The wild beauty, cultural richness, spiritual vacancy and ferocious violence of America are explored to compelling effect in virtually every aspect of 'The Joshua Tree'—in the title and the cover art, the blues and country borrowings evident in the music ... Indeed, Bono says that 'dismantling the mythology of America' is an important part of 'The Joshua Tree's artistic objective" - Anthony DeCurtis
After their two earnest, post-punk, riffy albums, followed by the melodically rocking War and then the more experimental, sometimes ambient The Unforgettable Fire, U2 continued their change of direction with this, their real breakthrough to huge commercial success.
No longer somewhat faceless post-punks, U2, bolstered by an impressive performance at 1985’s Live Aid now became a massive stadium rock band, with a charismatic singer everyone now knew (although he was somewhat derivative, and drew accusations of pretension, and being “up himself”). Paul “Bono” Hewson probably always had that in him, to be honest, but it now came well and truly to the surface. Bono had felt that he needed to express himself far more politically in his lyrics, after Live Aid and visits to famine-affected areas of Africa. He also felt he was comparatively ignorant of much of music’s roots, not knowing anywhere near enough about the blues, Americana, or even Irish roots music. He started hanging out at times with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Steve Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E. Street Band and Ireland’s Celtic roots rock band The Hothouse Flowers. All of these didn’t seem to object to Bono’s earnest presence and provided, it seems, helpful counsel and influence on him. Brian Eno also arrived to aid producer Daniel Lanois and this massive album was, therefore, a cornucopia of various influences. It made for one heck of a mix and the result is known by everyone. U2 became one of the biggest bands on the planet.
Bono’s obsession with America was to override the whole album. It is strange how often artists that are so intrinsically left-wing in their politics, humanist in their outlook and generally possessed of a strong social conscience become so obsessed with a country that, at certain times and in certain places, displays a lack of those things. Maybe it is the musical heritage and the natural beauty that was most inspirational, but often it appears that the obsession manifests itself as ranting against America as a concept and the capitalism that built it. Strange.
Anyway, the first three tracks steer clear of those sort of conceits, on the whole, and are three copper-bottomed classics. The build up intro to Where The Streets Have No Name is so uplifting and powerful, one of rock’s best intros. The gospel-influenced I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For is simply as inspirational as it was no doubt intended to be and the slow, bassy throbbing undercurrent of With Or Without You is intoxicating. Everyone knows these tracks now, but it doesn’t stop them being a superb introductory triad to an album.
Bullet The Blue Sky is the first politically motivated track, full of searing guitar, Biblical references, an impassioned vocal from Bono and lyrics about American influence in Central America and governmental corruption. In many ways it is the best track on the album. Hard hitting and profound. Running To Stand Still has echoes of their earlier material with its mournful guitar sound. Red Hill Mining Town is majestic and stately, almost anthemic, perfect for stadium performances, while the riffy intro to In God's Country definitely harks back to the early days. The upbeat but bluesy I Trip Through Your Wires also shows a real instinct for a hook, that the band were coming up with now far more than before. One Tree Hill has that now typical guitar sound from The Edge employed so effectively on the previous album’s monumental Bad.
The mysterious, rumbling bass-driven Exit and the elegiac Mothers Of The Disappeared end what started off as quite a joyous album on a sombre, bleak, introspective note. In many ways the final half of the album is not very commercial at all - it is brooding and impenetrable at times, in contrast to the radio-friendly rock of the opening three tracks.
This is a beguiling, multi-textured album that belies its “monster” status, being deep, dark and inscrutable at many points. It still remains their best album, by far.
RATTLE AND HUM (1988)
Helter Skelter/Van Diemen's Land/Desir/Hawkmoon 269/All Along The Watchtower/I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For/Freedom For My People/Silver And Gold/Pride (In The Name Of Love)/Angel Of Harlem/Love Rescue Me/When Love Comes To Town/Heartland/God Part II/The Star Spangled Banner/Bullet The Blue Sky/All I Want Is You
"I was very keen on the idea of going wide at a time like that, just seeing how big this thing could get. I had always admired Colonel Tom Parker and Brian Epstein for realising that music could capture the imagination of the whole world" - U2 manager Paul McGuiness
I remember all the fuss about this album and the accompanying movie, which was annoyingly pretentious - see the above quote. All of a sudden U2 were the "greatest band on the planet" and Bono could do no wrong. I had a girlfriend at the time who blathered on thus - "did you see Bono in Rattle And Hum? He went into a gospel church and sang with the choir, wow he was fantastic, they are the best band the world have ever seen and he is the best singer...". Yes, she really said that. Personally, the movie left me cold and the whole hype about it I found perplexing, to be honest. The gospel bit was uplifting, though.
This, the soundtrack album, is a strange affair - a mixture of collaborations, contrived tracks and a few live ones - it meanders all over the place. It supposedly highlights U2's undying love for Americana and the blues, something I (and most other people) had not noticed in their music up to this point. I have to admit I always found it puzzling when Bono exclaims in Silver And Gold - "ok, Edge - play the blues", and The Edge delivers a typically U2 guitar part that is certainly not the blues, wonderful although it is. Bono is also on somewhat embarrassing on-stage pronouncement form. Nobody at the time seemed to feel that way though and they lapped up "Charles Manson stole this song from The Beatles - we're stealing it back" and "for The Reverend Martin Luther King - sing!". I know the guy's heart is in the right place, but it just doesn't always work for me. I'm probably being far too harsh. After all, I agree with what Bono has to say.
Anyway, as to the album, which has received some brickbats over the years. It has some good moments on it, however. It is certainly not as bad as people say. It just has an air of self-satisfaction about it.
Van Diemen's Land I have always liked, although it ends to soon, ridiculously faded out before it properly ends - why I don't know. Desire is great however, with a thumping Not Fade Away/Bo Diddley rolling drum rhythm. Hawkmoon 269 is an insistent, slow building anthemic number that I have again always liked, particularly the gospelly backing vocals at the song's denouement. You know, I have always thought their solidly rocking live cover of Bob Dylan's All Along The Watchtower was great too. Angel Of Harlem is a superb, exhilarating horn-drenched Stax/Motown/Aretha Franklin tribute. It is very un-U2 but its great. It just a bit incongruous in their hands. They are not Bruce Springsteen. I never thought they had a love for Stax or Atlantic soul.
The other live tracks are actually pretty convincing - Helter Skelter is rousing and gets the blood pumping; despite the criticism from many, I love the gospel version of I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For; Bullet The Blue Sky is searing and bristles with righteous indignation while Silver And Gold is a good, rumbling, bassily evocative rock song, just not the blues. Pride (In The Name Of Love) is the stadium celebration it always should be. You can't really criticise them for these cuts, let's be fair.
Another great track is the proper rocking blues of their B.B. King collaboration, When Love Comes To Town, featuring some truly superb blues guitar from King. The song they wrote with Bob Dylan is slowly appealing but goes on a bit too long. Heartland is a low-key, slightly mysterious track that sounds as if it dates from The Joshua Tree period, and God Part II is a sort of updated re-write of John Lennon's God. It has a huge, pounding drum sound and is one of their rockiest-ever tracks, despite its somewhat unoriginal derivation. All I Want Is You is a bit drawn-out but it has some typical U2 guitar there, which was quite rare on this album.
You know, listening to this, as I said earlier, it is nowhere near as bad as it has been retrospectively made out to be. It just isn't The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby.
ACHTUNG BABY (1991)
Zoo Station/Even Better Than The Real Thing/One/Until The End Of The World/Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses/So Cruel/The Fly/Mysterious Ways/Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World/Ultraviolet (Light My Way)/Acrobat/Love Is Blindness
"Buzzwords on this record were trashy, throwaway, dark, sexy, and industrial (all good) and earnest, polite, sweet, righteous, rockist and linear (all bad). It was good if a song took you on a journey or made you think your hifi was broken, bad if it reminded you of recording studios or U2" - Brian EnoThis was the album where U2's music changed completely. Produced by Daniel Lanois and (importantly) Brian Eno, they ceased becoming either a) a post-punk guitar-driven rock band or b) an ambient, atmospheric but occasionally very commercial stadium rock band. What we got now were contemporary, thumping, bassy, often mechanical dance rhythms backed by layers of (dare I say it) 'industrial'-sounding fuzzy, buzzy guitars. David "The Edge" Evans' trademark guitar still cut through occasionally and the Berlin-derived influence of David Bowie's "Heroes" and bits of Talking Heads' Fear Of Music was all over it as well. It was an intoxicating brew, but often an impenetrable one tailor-made for stadium bombast however, with flashing light systems and increasingly elaborate stage sets. One listen to the opener, Zoo Station, confirms that. It's great though, loaded with Bowie-esque late seventies guitars, weird noises and Cold War atmosphere. The influence of Krautrock bands like Neu! and Kraftwerk were never far away, either, or the "Madchester" scene dance-influenced rock bands like The Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses and The Inspiral Carpets could all claim an influence. U2 were becoming a "dance-rock" band.
Bono's lyrics and persona were now going into full pretentiousness overdrive and they lost many followers due to this and attracted quite a lot of scorn from many who said "I don't mind U2 but I can't stand Bono". His regular pronouncements on world issues were beginning to get tiresome, however earnest and well-meant. That is not to say that this album was not packed full with commercially-viable material, however. Just listen to the instantly appealing Even Better Than The Real Thing and the now iconic One as examples.
The beautifully bassy and mysterious, seductive vocals of Until The End of The World is one of my favourites. It contains great pulsating rhythms and "proper" drums (not programmed drum machines). It is U2 at their early nineties best. The best of this new incarnation. Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses begins in a haze of buzzy guitars and suddenly launches into a huge anthemic chorus made for stadium fist-pumping. Yes, there was a sombre, introspective sound to this material but U2 always knew a good hook, and these hooks ensured Radio Two play. Throw in a few "hey heys" and "sha-la-las" and you ensure commercial success despite the bleaker parts of the new soundscape.
In the way that David Bowie changed his musical output many times, this change that U2 underwent was quite similarly noteworthy (although nowhere near as regular or different as Bowie's changes). They still did it, though, and it was a brave move from a group over ten years into their career. So Cruel is another slow number with a simply massive grinding bass underbeat and a yearning, song vocal from Bono, whose voice has become more characterful, less whiny, much fuller. "She wears my love like a see-through dress..." is a great line. A lot of the songs on here are love-inspired as opposed to gripes about the state of the world, another notable shift in approach.
A really dense, muffled dance beat is on The Fly, which surprisingly was a number one single. It was probably U2's least commercial single. No real hook to it, just a crashing sonic attack like a shift in a sheet metal factory. I love it though. It has some intoxicating guitar sounds. She Moves In Mysterious Ways has an absolute killer screechy but rhythmic intro and a sublime, uplifting catchy chorus. Now, I love heavy bass, but Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World has one of the heaviest I have ever heard in a rock context. Vocally, it has hints of Deacon Blue to me. Ultraviolet (Light My Way) is a sombre, intense and pounding rock number whose starkness is again interjected by a catchy refrain and some addictive guitar lines. Under it is the omnipresent huge bass that underpins this whole album.
Acrobat is a little-mentioned but seductive number with a bit of that old trademark guitar crying in under the muscular drumbeat. Love Is Blindness is the usual haunting closer, a plaintive lovelorn vocal over another rumbling bass line.
There is a strong argument for this being U2's best album. It is certainly the best of the "industrial" albums that followed this and for me, it out-does The Joshua Tree. War was excellent, of course, but it was of its time and genre. This is probably the most realised album and their true pinnacle.
Zooropa/Babyface/Numb/Lemon/Stay (Faraway, So Close!)/Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car/Some Days Are Better Than Others/The First Time/Dirty Day/The Wanderer
"We thought we could live a normal life and then go back on the road [in May 1993]. But it turns out that your whole way of thinking, your whole body has been geared toward the madness of Zoo TV... So we decided to put the madness on a record. Everybody's head was spinning, so we thought, why not keep that momentum going...?" - Bono
This was the second of U2's intense, "industrial" dance beat-influenced "electronic" albums. It continues very much in the same intransigent vein as its predecessor Achtung Baby. Whereas that album contained several commercially attractive songs, this one was considerably more introspective.
Zooropa, the opening track begins in a laid-back, chilled-out ambient style, before it kicks in to a strong, bassy now instantly recognisable U2 thump. The music on here is supposedly "techno" in its influences I don't know much about that at all, but its dance rhythms and beats are matched by some solid rock guitar and muscular, powerful drumming. Basically, it is big, anthemic U2-style stadium-ready rock merged with dance beats on occasions and some electronica too. Babyface has a sumptuous bass line, great guitar lines and a slow, seductive but hooky chorus, together with some infectious isolated drum sounds in the middle. These are more than just dance style songs with minimalist chanted, repetitive lyrics. They are actually good songs. Babyface is a particularly impressive one.
The bass is so boomingly loud on Numb, however, that I always have to turn it down much lower than normal. I like bass a lot, but I feel some of the songs in this phase of their career were overwhelmed by bass vibrations. Bono's vocals on here are a series of mumbles, to be honest. The spacey-sounding Lemon has a similar pumping rhythm, but a more appealing high-pitched vocal with Bono sounding a bit like Prince or Mick Jagger when he puts on a high voice. It certainly is evocative, intoxicating stuff. I like my music loud, but I have to turn this down low to appreciate and pick up on any nuances it may have. Was this the phase where Bono pretended to be this sort of devilish type creature, a sort of alter-ego? I think it was - oh yes, "MacPhisto", he called himself. Contemporary popular disdain for Bono surely has its origins in that sort of guff.
Despite Bono's pretensions and posturing, a song like Stay (Faraway, So Close!) is a totally captivating, beguiling song. Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car is a dance-ish beaty number similar to the sort of thing David Bowie would put on Earthling a few years later. For once, U2 got there first. Some Days Are Better Than Others has a catchy bass line, again it vibrates too much, but the song has an energising, stimulating hook.
The First Time is indeed the first time that anything on the album harks back to The Joshua Tree phase. It is a brooding love song against a low-key drummed electric guitar backing. It also has some Bruce Springsteen-style "yeeeh-heeeh" I'm On Fire wailing half way through. Dirty Day is an underrated, sometimes forgotten track on here with a convincing high vocal and some excellent buzzy, wah-wah-ish guitar. The Wanderer, with Johnny Cash, is so ridiculously incongruous that I don't play it when I play this album.
Overall, this is an adventurous, barrier-pushing piece of work but the production is too vibrating, bass-wise for me, and that's saying something because I usually love a booming bass sound.
PS - the "new mixes" of several tracks appear on The Best Of 1988-2000 and they are less floor-shaking bassy. Numb is one of them. The others are Stay, The First Time, Dirty Day and Lemon.
Discotheque/Do You Feel Loved/Mofo/If God Will Send His Angels/Staring At The Sun/Last Night On Earth/Gone/Miami/The Playboy Mansion/If You Wear That Velvet Dress/Please/Wake Up Dead Man
"The thinking was that we were going to further experiment with the notion of what a band was all about and find new ways to write songs, accepting the influence, and aesthetics of dance music" - The Edge
This is the final of U2's "industrial" dance-influenced albums, and, for many, it is the most 'dancey' and clubby. It is again influenced by techno and electronica and uses tape loops, sampling and programmed drums. Poor old Larry Mullen. One of rock's great drummers often being replaced by a machine. Despite all that though, and that this sort of music is not by any means my favourite, I quite like this album, preferring it to Zooropa. It has a few hidden secrets for me that beg for repeated listens. For many, though, it was not popular at all. It sold loads at the time, though not many since, and it is seen by many critics as a poor album. Maybe the fact that U2 hardly ever seem to play material from this album live says a lot, however. They would appear to have disowned it.
Certainly, the opener, Discotheque kicks off with huge, pulsating dance rhythms. It has an infectious, catchy refrain though so it is not just a song based on beat alone. Similarly, the slightly subtler, melodically bassy Do You Feel Loved has a catchiness to it, a rhythm that gets into you and a good vocal, together with some great scratchy guitar too. Mofo is a classic dance number, the most obvious one on the album, with frantic programmed, metronomic drums and weird guitar noises a-plenty. Bono's vocals are often incomprehensible and mumbled. Again, though, it is a bit of a shame to have a great voice like his muffled so much. There's an intoxicating bass line on this though.
If God Will Send His Angels is a good song. It is far less of the dance thing and far more of a typical U2 slow burning rock ballad, with some "proper" drums and rock guitar and an authentic, clear Bono vocal. Staring At The Sun is a good one too, and has U2 sounding remarkably like Oasis, especially in its rousing, stadium-style chorus and acoustic guitars. Similarly impressive and also a bit Oasis-like (not as much, though) is Last Night On Earth. It is tracks like these last three that raise this album above Zooropa for me.
Gone has a stimulating, melodic bass line and a convincing Bono vocal, some searing electric guitar and some excellent drums. Miami is a most interesting track, full of weird drum sounds, guitar noises and a trippy vocal. The Playboy Mansion also has a dreamy, hippy appeal, with a sort of late sixties meets the mid-nineties feel. It has a suitably decadent feel. If You Wear That Velvet Dress is a sombre, mournful Bono ballad in the style of any previous album's closing tracks. Please is a yearning, soulful song with a captivating drum sound from Larry Mullen and some beseeching vocals from Bono bemoaning Northern Ireland's problems. Wake Up Dead Man apparently dates from the Achtung Baby sessions and is a dark, quasi-religious brooding number. This has not been a happy album, it has to be said, but that should not detract from its morose appeal, if that is not a contradiction. I'm sure you know what I mean.
Listening to this album, it is the first few tracks that are blatantly "dance", as it progresses it is far more like industrial rock and it is in the last two thirds of it that it appeals to me more than Zooropa but not more than Achtung Baby, which is by far the best of the three, without question.
PS - Gone, Discotheque, Staring At The Sun and If God Will Send His Angels were all remixed for The Best Of 1988-2000 and excellent remixes they are too, with far more room given for the tracks to breathe.
ALL THAT YOU CAN'T LEAVE BEHIND (2000)
Beautiful Day/Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of/Elevation/Walk On/Kite/In A Little While/Wild Honey/Peace On Earth/When I Look At The World/New York/Grace/The Ground Beneath Her Feet
"With 'Pop', the band had taken the deconstruction of the rock 'n' roll band format to its absolute nth degree" The Edge
After 1997's Pop, a poorly-received venture into dense, programmed electro-dance rhythms, U2 returned nearly four years later, deciding to launch another different phase of their career. They returned to the radio-friendly commerciality that was still present in 1991's Achtung Baby, despite its avant-garde "industrial" soundscapes. Gone were the programmed drums, tape loops and inscrutable, intransigent instrumentation. Unfortunately, their latest renaissance was delivered by Bono stating that "we need to re-apply for the job of "best band in the world"...". Oh dear. If ever any evidence is needed as to why Bono polarises opinions, there it was. No band is or was "the best band in the world". Not The Beatles. Not Led Zeppelin. Not the Clash. Certainly not U2.
This is perfectly exemplified in the first three tracks - the singalong, feel-good Beautiful Day (although not too joyful so as not to be tempered by Bono's concerns over the tuna-fishing industry); the typically anthemic Radio Two staple of Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of and the rhythmic, catchy Elevation, which was dance-y but chart-friendly at the same time. Far more than, say, Discotheque was. Walk On, with its Beatles hints in places, continues in the same vein, with an updated positive Joshua Tree feel and a warmth of sound that breathes. The dense, crashing industrial sound of the factory floor was now converted to an airy, open plan office, complete with a water cooler for discussions about the world's issues.
Kite is an earnest mid-paced piece of "half way through the set" stadium rock by numbers. Full of meaningful lyrics, excellent guitar and a rising chorus. Fine for those swaying arms. Bono's voice sounds ageing on In A Little While for the first time, but it is an agreeable enough slow typical U2 ballad.
Wild Honey is a delightfully melodic, acoustic-driven lively song that is one of the lightest, most soulful songs they had ever done. It has the energy and enthusiasm of the first three albums but is softer in outlook. It reminds me of some of Bruce Springsteen's later material - rocky, catchy and tuneful. This is as loose and carefree as U2 have ever sounded. Peace On Earth has Bono going a bit Michael Jackson, but it displays a darker, mournful side to it. Again, for me, it is very Springsteen-esque. There are strong hints of Deacon Blue in there too, particularly in the song's denouement. When I Look At The World has a bit of a slowed-down dance rhythm backing but again, it is far more accessible than the previous few albums' material. The sound is once more far more open as indeed are the vocals. No more incomprehensible mumbling.
The very Lou Reed-esque New York is a most evocative, atmospheric slow-burner of a song. It is my favourite song on the album, with its accurate descriptions of how hot a New York summer is. When it bursts into life after a few minutes it positively rocks with a majesty U2 had not summoned up for many a year. "Irish have been coming for years, feel like they own the place...." sings Bono, wryly. Grace is an emotional, sensitively-delivery slow number too with Bono's voice far better than it had been for a couple of albums. "Grace finds pity in everything - she carries the world on her hips..." that line evokes Talking Heads' The Great Curve from Remain In Light. It is a truly lovely song.
U2 traditionally end albums with a sombre-ish number and they do here with The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which, although ok, seems to pass me by just a little. It comes to a slightly abrupt ending too. Overall, though, this was a refreshingly appealing album.
HOW TO DISMANTLE AN ATOMIC BOMB (2004)
Vertigo/Miracle Drug/Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own/Love And Peace Or Else/City Of Blinding Lights/All Because Of You/A Man And A Woman/Crumbs From Your Table/One Step Closer/Original Of The Species/Yahweh/Fast Cars
"It's taken us twenty years or whatever it is, but this is our first rock album" - Bono
It is now that U2 albums started becoming "just another U2 album" for me. They now needed more of an effort to get them out and properly listen to them. Having said that, though, doing so has proved to be a pleasurable experience, when I have listened to them, and each of them reveals some hidden depths.
I have read a wise comment somewhere that said that at many points in the career, U2 were often trying to make up for their previous album's perceived shortcomings. While All That You Can't Leave Behind was certainly not a failure, it seemed to me that on this album they tried to show that they could still rock out. This is one of their brashest, rockiest albums. All that dance music obsession that filled their incredibly bass-heavy, clunky nineties work had been left behind as they tried to to recapture their old edge (no pun intended). Electronica was left behind, the synthesised rhythms, drums and sledgehammer bass lines were gone too, as were Bono's muffled, mumbling vocals. It is, like its predecessor, an invigorating album.
Vertigo, it has to be said, is a rousing, stadium-pleasing rocker full of riffs and a hooky chorus. It was tailor-made as a live set opener and indeed was duly used as such, to great effect. It was one of their most instantly appealing songs for a considerable while. It even had hints of the early eighties in some of the guitar backing and a great rumbling bass line. Miracle Drug has a sumptuous guitar and vocal intro before kicking into a riffy rhythm and more harking back to the War album in its keyboard, drum and guitar backing and the general feel of it. Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own is a slow-burning, atmospheric rock ballad with Bono's vocals impressing. There is some killer guitar here too. Much as albums like Zooropa and Pop were admirably experimental and both are thoroughly interesting, challenging listens, I have to say I prefer this U2.
I am not a copper-bottomed, dyed-in-the-wool or whatever type of U2 fan. I own all their albums, but as a admirer as opposed to an aficionado so I often find the fact that it now seems fashionable to criticise them a bit strange, because even time I listen to their albums I enjoy them. Take a track like Love And Peace Or Else - it is big, powerful, full of hooks and riffs and earnest lyrics and yes, Bono does himself no favours at times, but the guy has a great voice. This track is essentially a great post-punk track given stadium-ready power. City Of Blinding Lights is a great track, let's be honest. One of those typical early eighties guitar, bass and drum intros takes me right back to U2 circa 1983. No "poor old U2" can be applied derogatorily to this song. Not at all. Its fire burns brightly. All Because Of You is an exhilarating, riffy rocker. Yes, tracks like Numb and Lemon had a sort of mysterious, dense appeal, but this is much better.
A Man And A Woman is a bassy and acoustic guitar-driven catchy number. Crumbs From Your Table is quite an intense song with some typical, nostalgic-sounding guitar sounds. Some criticise U2's guitar sound because it is so recognisable as them, but surely that is a strength, like Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix or Brian May. The Edge has his trademark sound and that is a good thing. It is what makes U2 U2. One Step Closer is an evocative, mournful song. Bono does these songs so well. Original Of The Species has a sort of Beatles-ish late sixties sound to it.
Yahweh is very much something that has echoes of the War album, for me. It has a moving-sounding refrain, and yet another excellent vocal. Unlike the usual slow, reflective number to close the album, we get the rhythmic, addictive Fast Cars, with some beguiling Spanish-sounding guitar. This has been a most enjoyable album.
NO LINE ON THE HORIZON (2009)
No Line On The Horizon/Magnificent/Moment Of Surrender/Unknown Caller/I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight/Get On Your Boots/Stand Up Comedy/Fez/White As Snow/Breathe/Cedars Of Lebanon
"We're gonna continue to be a band, but maybe the rock will have to go - maybe the rock has to get a lot harder. But whatever it is, it's not gonna stay where it is" - Bono
Funny things, U2 albums. They come out every four years or so, ten to thirteen tracks or so of stodgy, somewhat muffled, metallic, thrashy stuff with that instantly recognisable drum sound and bass line underpinning The Edge’s searing guitar parts while Bono wails on about mobile phones, ATM machines, passwords and other huge problems that “modern, global life” brings. Every track around four to five minutes in length. That is the formula then, a formula that, I have to admit, means that while I bought this album in 2009, I haven’t listened to it properly until today, nearly ten years later!
I like it in many ways. Taken individually, a lot of the tracks are impressive. Despite many people appearing to disagree, Unknown Caller is a favourite of mine, and similarly, I enjoy the Subterranean Homesick Blues feel of Get On Your Boots.
No Line On The Horizon is instantly accessible, as is I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight and Stand Up Comedy has a killer riff. Fez is interesting with its echoes of David Bowie’s Berlin phase. White As Snow is rather beautiful.
Breathe has a staccato feel and a nice keyboard/guitar interplay with a good hook chorussy bit. Bono does go on about a “Ju Ju Man” and Chinese stocks and shares and Asian viruses” in a paranoid Paul Simon-esque lyric though. I do like this one, however. Cedars Of Lebanon is one of those classic sparse bass and drum backed U2 slow burners to end things off, for the next four years. A very evocative song though.
I have to admit to enjoying it, surprisingly, when giving it my full attention. Although there is a “same-iness” to listening to it in full, the stodgy feel I mentioned earlier, there is a way it just sort of insinuates itself into your consciousness. Dear me, I am beginning to sound like Bono.
I guess my main point is that it is easy to dismiss these later period U2 albums as lazy product from multi-millionaires whose mojo left them long ago. Not so. Give it a chance, as I did, however late. It is a good album. Maybe in a few years, I’ll listen to Songs Of Innocence.
SONGS OF INNOCENCE (2014)
The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)/Every Breaking Wave/California (There Is No End To Love)/Song For Someone/Iris (Hold Me Close)/Volcano/Raised By Wolves/Cedarwood Road/Sleep Like A Baby Tonight/This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now/The Troubles
"We got some of the songs halfway up the hill, three-quarters of the way up the hill. A lot of times, we just couldn't get them up to the top of the hill" - Bono
Coming five years after their previous album , No Line On The Horizon, this album seriously ran the risk of being just "another U2 album". You almost got the impression that they felt they had to put something out to keep up their "best band in the world" reputation, but had sort of lost their mojo in creating it.
This album had a slight sense of trying too hard to come up something about it, but its is not without its good points, however. The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) is a big, muscular industrial chugger and nothing like The Ramones, of whom it is supposed to be a tribute to. It is quite dense with a few crashing guitar parts, but it is certainly no breakneck punker. Every Breaking Wave is an insistent, bassily beautiful slow burner, with a fine, tender, clear vocal from Bono. They are a strange beast in 2014, U2. Their love of rock nostalgia and tradition is tempered by an almost obsessive urge to be modern, credible and relevant. The homo-erotic album cover would seem to be another example of that desire too. They want to play tender, intimate love songs, but nearly every song is created to be performed at a huge stadium gig.
California (There Is No End To Love) is probably a classic example. It is a catchy, melodic mid-tempo rocker but the vocals and chorus see to be designed for "wo-oh-oh" arm waving at a football stadium somewhere in Europe or the USA one hot night in summer. When it kicks in with Larry Mullen's thumping drums and Adam Clayton's rumbling bass, though, it still sounds great. Song For Someone is pretty typical later-phase (post-Pop) U2 fare - slow, atmospheric verses and huge wave that mobile phone in the air chorus. Iris (Hold Me Close), about Bono's late mother, has an archetypal Edge guitar riff underpinning it and a truly sumptuous bass line. It is nothing new, but I really like it. The "ooh-ooh" backing vocals are very much from Deacon Blue's Real Gone Kid.
Volcano has a deep, post-punk bass intro and an eighties-style feel about it. It is another I am partial too. Raised By Wolves is a hard-hitting, no punches pulled protest song about atrocities committed in Northern Ireland. Nobody can have many criticisms for this. Cedarwood Road sees Bono looking back to his youth in Dublin and musing once again, ruefully, on sectarianism. Sleep Like A Baby Tonight is a plaintive strings and keyboard ballad that powerfully bursts out of its plaintiveness into a huge clunking stadium-friendly chorus once again. Bono's vocal on this is excellent. Many lambast him, probably because of his persona, but it mustn't be forgotten that the guy has a great voice. There is a seriously good piece of guitar at the end of this too.
This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now was apparently inspired by The Clash. Not sure where. It just sounds like upbeat, singalong U2, with Bono singing a view high notes that sound vaguely like Elton John at times, and a funky break in the last third. The Troubles is a haunting song, not actually about Northern Ireland, but an emotional love song. It would be an easy thing to dismiss this album, but if you imagine it is not U2, is seems a pretty good album. As it is U2, there will still be something worthwhile on it, and there is.
SONGS OF EXPERIENCE (2017)
Love Is All We Have Left/Lights Of Home/You're The Best Thing About Me/Get Out Of Your Own Way/American Soul/Summer Of Love/Red Flag Day/The Showman/The Little Things That Give You Away/Landlady/The Blackout/Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way/13 (There Is A Light)
"If you like 'Songs of Innocence', stay with us for 'Songs of Experience'. It should be ready soon enough... although I know I've said that before" - Bono
I approached this album somewhat tentatively, having read endless critical reviews that spoke of "poor old U2".... "not what they were"... "sad to see such a demise..." and so on. I was definitely expecting the worst - just "another U2 album".
As it happened, I have been most pleasantly surprised. I have found it quite a refreshing listen. Certainly sound-wise it is the most clear, defined and "open" for a long time. The industrial, impenetrable, crashing bombastic sound that has dominated their music since Achtung Baby has given way to a more nuanced, slightly lighter sound that is still powerful, but actually has a clear stereo separation for once. I have read criticisms of this album that say that the band are trying to recapture the sound of October. Well, good for them if they are. It was a great album.
After the ethereal, low-key, ambient opener of Love Is All We Have Left, Lights Of Home is an infectious number with a great guitar solo that is not in the usual Edge style. You're The Best Thing About Me is a thumping, recognisably U2 song with, for me, vague echoes of Bruce Springsteen's The Fuse in Bono's phrasing of the verses at one point. A notable thing is that The Edge's guitar is not as typically omnipresent in the material on here. Get Out Of Your Own Way has some catchy build up verses and a big, pounding chorus. There is a subtle melody to this too, though. I listen to this and don't quite get the criticism. Yes, U2 have their sound. Of course they do. It seems to be the curse of any group or artist that have been around for a long time - they cannot escape their past. Paul McCartney, Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Elton John...anyone who is still putting out music in their usual style get a critical slagging off. If they try to diversify a little, like Paul Weller, they get similarly lambasted. Putting out great material in your early career is the worst thing you can do in terms of getting critical acclaim later in your career.
American Soul is one return to the powerful, relentless attack of the last few albums, but the excellent Summer Of Love is a tuneful, rhythmic and very appealing number. Possibly my favourite on the album. The backing is intricate, melodic, percussive and Bono's voice is impressive too. Red Flag Day has an intoxicating sound to it, with some great rhythmic drumming from Larry Mullen. Adam Clayton's bass is nicely discernible as well. It still finds time for a bit of stadium rock, anthemic "oh-oh-ing" though. I really like this, however. I am not a "proper" U2 fan, so this is perhaps are more objective view, listening to the album from a more neutral perspective. For many, who have listened to U2 albums regularly over many years, this is probably just a disappointing "more of the same". For me, who listens to U2 about once or twice a year, (it was the same in their eighties/nineties pomp) I found myself really enjoying it. I know where they are coming from, though. U2 have a problem in that people expect them to remain "relevant". If I were them I wouldn't give a damn. Just do what they want to do. Unfortunately for them, sometimes I think maybe they do bother about that sort of thing.
Similarly, The Showman has a fetching acoustic intro and a spirited upbeat feel to it. Again, I think this is a really good track. The Little Things That Give You Away is one of those slow-paced, plaintive Bono numbers, sung against a mournful synthesiser and Edge guitar backing. Lovely bass underpinning it too. U2 became a monster group for a reason. Songs like this are why.
Landlady is another beguiling, low-key slow burner. It is enigmatically beautiful. The Blackout is somewhat blighted by an over bassy thump (and I like bass) and it employs some Paul Simon-esque "back, Zack" rhyming in the lyrics. Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way is a stadium-type anthemic number that is probably one of those that annoys people. It still has its appeal though, although its like has been heard from them many times before. Becoming a "stadium" act has been the blight of many an artist. Who wouldn't prefer to see The Rolling Stones or Springsteen in a smaller venue? The same applies to U2. The closer, 13 (There Is A Light) is an atmospheric, haunting song that would have been hailed a work of genius if it had closed Achtung Baby. As it is, it sounds a little bit overdone in that earnest Michael Jackson way here.
The bonus track Ordinary Love is incredibly catchy, with some great bass lines and guitar breaks. Book Of Your Heart is evocative, but very much U2 as you would expect to hear. Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this album.