Monday, 5 October 2020

U2 - Some Days Are Better Than Others (1993-2018)





Zooropa (1993)


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 StayThe First TimeDirty Day and Lemon.




Pop (1997)


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 - GoneDiscotheque, 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 HeadsThe 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 LeftLights 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 MullenAdam 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.

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