Thursday, 10 June 2021

Bite-sized U2

These are U2's studio albums, together with introductions from my longer reviews (which can be accessed here) :-

Boy (1980)

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. Then there was the singer Bono's charismatic posturing. 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. 

October (1981)

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.

War (1983)

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 Unforgettable Fire (1984)

I have always felt this album to be a sort of bridging, transitional one between the still raw-ish 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 Joshua Tree (1987)

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.

Rattle And Hum (1988)

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.

Achtung Baby (1991)

This 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. 

Zooropa (1993)

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. 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.

Pop (1997)

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.

All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000)

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.

How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004)

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.

No Line On The Horizon (2009)

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 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)

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. 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.

Songs Of Experience (2017)

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.

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