The first ultra-serious salvo from a band that thought big and sported a big sound, Boy was the work of a young, ambitious band who already had a fully developed and self-assured sound. The album begins with an instant classic in "I Will Follow," a real toe tapper notable for its great "in your eyes" mid-section. The evocative yet rocking "Twilight" is also excellent despite Bono's slightly rushed and uncertain vocals, as the song has an intense chorus and its ending is classic Edge (clearly the standout performer on the album, and one of my all-time favorite guitarists). The band then gets moody on the strong if over-long (6:16) "An Cat Dubh," which features another prime Edge performance and a big (wordless) Irish chorus, which is fitting given that this is the band's most Irish sounding album. “Into The Heart” continues where “An Cat Dub” left off and is a short, pretty tune with a strong vocal performance, while other highlights include "Out Of Control," an exciting rocker that has great ringing riffs and pulse pounding beats, "Stories For Boys," a moody rocker with an evocative harmonized chorus, "A Day Without Me," whose bright and lively melody is at odds with its dark subject matter (suicide), which only makes it more interesting, and "The Electric Co,." another early standout that you can easily sing along to. Granted, "I Will Follow" is probably the album's only truly classic U2 track, and there are a few less memorable entries, but even these typically have their moments, such as the Edge’s great guitar work on "Another Time, Another Place." So yes, the album has its flaws, other ones being Bono's tendency to over-sing and Adam Clayton's still developing bass skills. Still others may point to "overly Christian" lyrics, but at least the band rocks throughout, something that can’t be said for many of their more refined but less energetic later releases, and the sheer passion and sincerity that goes into these performances always wins me over. U2 would go on to record several of my all-time favorite albums, but Boy is unlike any of their later efforts, and it's well worth returning to, as it’s a very fine first effort that captures well the band’s innocent climb towards rock immortality.
October (Island ’81) Rating: B
This is the forgotten early U2 album, following in the same sonic vein as Boy but with less memorable songs, as the band suffers somewhat through the dreaded sophomore slump. The old adage ("you have your whole life to make your first album and sixth months to make your second") definitely holds true for October, and the fact that Bono lost a briefcase containing notes for potential lyrics only added to the rushed atmosphere and overall uncertainty of the album. All things considered, October isn't half bad, as the band still has an inviting Celtic sound and offers up plenty of passionate conviction and raw energy. Though most of the album hurtles forward in a breathless rush, lacking the diversity of later efforts, there are also mellower meditations, most notably the elegiac, piano-led title track. This is the band's mostly overtly religious album, as Bono raises Christian concerns throughout, often in over-emoting fashion. Fortunately, their brand of Christianity is one of inclusion and inward looking introspection ("I can't change the world but I can change the world in me"), making it easy to embrace (or at least tolerate) the heavy-handed lyrics while focusing on the music. That said, “Gloria” is really the only song here to have achieved classic status (and this tame version was subsequently blown away by the live version on Under A Blood Red Sky), though the alternately low-key and passionate "I Fall Down," the intense, edgy “I Threw A Brick Through A Window,” the heartfelt, exciting rocker “Rejoice,” and the atmospheric “Scarlet” (one of many early songs featuring chanted vocals) are other fine songs that jump out at me as I look at the track listing. Still, the album too often lacks truly memorable songs, and the lack of forward progress definitely marks October as a disappointment. Fortunately, bigger and better things soon followed.
War (Island ‘83) Rating: A
Fulfilling the promise that October and even Boy had only hinted at, War is where U2 started to prove that they were something truly special. Less centered on Christian themes and introducing a passionate mix of love and politics, musically this is U2’s most aggressive and hardest rocking collection, and it's still one of their best. The militant “Sunday Bloody Sunday” starts things off with a powerful anti-violence diatribe whose intense, questioning lyrics (“how long must we sing this song?”) are helped along by the band’s big, roaring attack and the inventive flourish of an electric violin. “Seconds” is an overlooked gem of a song sung by the Edge (sounding uncannily like Bono!) warning against nuclear warfare, while "New Year's Day" (the band's biggest hit to date) features a gorgeous piano melody, some great guitar from the Edge, and an inspired vocal by Bono. In short, it all came together on this terrific song, which remains one of the bands all-time best, while the driving drum beats and ringing riffs of "Like A Song…" are impressively intense even if the song isn’t all that memorable. By contrast, the sparse, dramatic "Drowning Man" is very memorable, in part because of the atmospheric, echoed production, but also because of Bono's great vocal. The martial rhythms and fist pumping chants of "Refugee" makes for another idiosyncratic winner, while the hard charging "Two Hearts Beat As One" rushes along on the Edge's edgy (sorry, but there really is no better word) guitar playing, the band's propulsive rhythm section, and Bono's vocals, which gasp excitedly as the song surges forward to its fantastic finish. "Red Light" is a minor but enjoyable album track due to its melodic vocal lines (with prominent backing vocals) and wailing trumpet interjections, while the relaxed, atmospheric "Surrender" is also quite ear pleasing (again in part due to its tasty backing vocals). A short but significant effort then commences with "40" (named after Psalm 40), a simple, soulful sing along ballad that went on to close every U2 concert throughout the rest of the '80s. Likewise, this elegiac hymn closes out this album in fine fashion, as it foreshadows the mellower, more reflective tone that the band's next two superb studio releases would concentrate on. To summarize, War, the last album of the Steve Lillywhite era (this would be his last full production for the band, though he would participate on later albums in a reduced role), was a big step up in class for the band. Bono in particular demands notice as a premiere rock voice on this fiery epic, which still stands as one of U2's most heartfelt and passionate triumphs.
Under A Blood Red Sky (Island ‘83) Rating: A-
An essential live album (also released as a concert film) that's all but bursting with energy, Under A Blood Red Sky showcases U2 the arena rock band. All of the eight songs on this (too) short 35 minute album are performed with plenty of passion and flair, and some are definite improvements on the originals, such as “Gloria” and “I Will Follow,” which are definitive. Other favorites such as "New Year's Day" (a full minute shorter than the studio version), "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (with its famous “this is not a rebel song” intro), and "40" (where the crowd sings alone on the fadeout) and (the lesser known) "The Electric Co" are also more than solidly rendered, while the two previously unavailable songs, "11 O'Clock Tick Tock" and "Party Girl," are impressive additions to the bands catalog, the former showing off the Edge’s riff arsenal and the band's underrated rhythm section, the idiosyncratic latter effort showing a rare lighter side to the band. Due to the enviable sophistication of the band's later studio albums, it is often forgotten (even by the band themselves, as demonstrated by their disappointingly bloated Zoo TV and PopMart tours) that U2 were originally first and foremost a great live band, a point proven by their show stealing performances at the "Live Aid" and "Amnesty International" benefit concerts. Under A Blood Red Sky is a highly enjoyable, raw rock n' roll record that captured a young, earnest U2 in their live prime when they were widely considered the best live band on the planet. Bono in particular gives an impassioned, charismatic vocal performance (his memorable vocal ad libs are generally spot on), making it easy to see why superstardom soon followed. U2 would never rock this hard again.
The Unforgettable Fire (Island ‘84) Rating: A+
With the subtraction of Steve Lillywhite and the addition of producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, U2 moved in a new direction by exploring a more lushly layered and evocative sound. Far removed from their punk rock influenced earlier records, The Unforgettable Fire is a much more mature, adult oriented album. The band sounds relaxed and assured throughout as they explore such serious topics as drug abuse ("Wired," "Bad") and the horrors of nuclear warfare (the title track), while also taking the time to pay tribute to a couple of deceased American icons, Martin Luther King ("Pride," "MLK") and Elvis Presley (“Elvis Presley and America"). "A Sort Of Homecoming" immediately showcases the "new" U2 with a memorably atmospheric melody and a passionate performance, while "Pride (In The Name Of Love)" became the band's biggest hit to date on the back of great ringing guitar riffs and touching (if inaccurate) lyrics about the enduring legacy of a true American hero. Elsewhere, "Wired" and "Indian Summer Sky" are propulsive tracks with an exotic Middle Eastern flavor, and it is overlooked album tracks such as these that make this album so special (and yes, I'm aware that almost nobody else thinks this album is as great as I do). "The Unforgettable Fire" is another terrific album track, led by its lush Eno-ized keyboard melody and Bono's fabulous falsettos, while "Promenade" is perhaps the single biggest reason why I love this album (and band) so much. Often dismissed as a forgettable album track, this short song has a simple, uncomplicated melody, but it's what they do with that melody that counts! Simply put, Bono's gorgeous vocal is simply beyond compare, always managing to get the ol' tear ducts to well up simply by virtue of its stunning perfection. Truth is, for all the criticism this guy gets for his big ego (though, with a truckload of humanitarian awards to his credit, I think much of it is misplaced), very few of the band's contemporaries had a singer in this guy's league. Anyway, "4th of July" is a short, mysterious instrumental that works as little more than a mood enhancing filler, but "Bad" is another indisputable high point that would become a much played radio and concert favorite (for the definitive version of the song, read the next review). “Elvis Presley and America” is another song that's often dismissed, but I really enjoy this one as well, despite (because of?) Bono's largely improvised and often mumbled monologue. Fact is, this epic song has a nice groove; I dig the drum patterns and the overall atmosphere, and the song builds to an extremely powerful climax before "MLK" ends the album on a gorgeously laid-back note, similar to how "40" had ended the previous album. Now that I've gone into a song-by-song analysis, I'd like to add that this entrancing album should be listened to in its entirety, for it is the album's surreal, spiritual overall quality that most attracts me to it. Of course, the sound is first rate (as it is on any Eno or Lanois production), as are the performances, from the seasoned rhythm section of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. to the Edge’s distinct, echoey guitar signature and onto Bono’s confident, charismatic vocals. Long story short: this is a desert island disc for me that I've cherished for many years, and though it's rarely mentioned as a classic album, or even among the band's very best albums, there aren't too many albums that I'd rather listen to on a regular basis.
Wide Awake In America (Island ‘85) Rating: B+
The main reason to get this 20-minute EP is for the awesome 8-minute live version of “Bad,” which easily trumps its excellent studio counterpart by adding a stirring improvisational ending along with a more propulsive rock drive. The other live track, “A Sort Of Homecoming,” is also quite good, as U2 again prove themselves capable of recreating even their most evocative studio creations on stage (that said, I prefer the original). As for the two new songs, I always find myself singing along to the pretty, hymn-like chants of “The Three Sunrises,” a real gem, and the atmospheric “Love Comes Tumbling” also has U2's trademark sound and is extremely listenable, though nothing makes it stand out like the band's best work. Though rather skimpy at a mere four songs long, this enjoyable EP is worth any big U2 fan’s time and money.
The Joshua Tree (Island ‘87) Rating: A+
After a three year layoff, expectations for this album were enormous, but The Joshua Tree met, and perhaps even exceeded, all expectations. The album has a broad, cinematic sweep and is a subdued, subtly beautiful album by a band that had reached full artistic maturity. The album begins with the three successful singles that helped make U2 the biggest band in the world. “Where The Streets Have No Name” starts with a mellow keyboard melody reminiscent of "MLK," but the song soon surges into one of their best, most exciting rockers, with prime performances all around (the popular video featured the most famous rooftop performance since The Beatles). “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” continues with a highly spiritual, gospel-tinged pop ballad that contains an attractive melody and reflective lyrics that are both personal and universal (and therein lies part of this album's enormous appeal). Likewise, “With Or Without You” contains lyrics that we can all relate to (i.e. "can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em"), accompanied by a beautiful melody and a wonderfully restrained performance from Bono, who delivers his most varied and accomplished set of vocals to date. "Bullet The Blue Sky" is another well-known song, this one about American intervention in Central America, as politics inevitably re-enter the picture. Fortunately, this is a powerful, hard rocking political statement on which the Edge seemingly channels the ghost of Hendrix, transporting uneasy listeners directly to that war torn land. Another familiar U2 theme reappears on "Running To Stand Still," a superb anti-heroin song that is all the more effective for its sparse acoustic arrangement and Bono's reserved, respectful vocal. As on The Unforgettable Fire, some of my favorite songs here are actually lesser known album tracks, one of which is the (again) politically charged, socially conscious “Red Hill Mining Town,” which is especially notable for its soaring, dramatic ending (amazingly, this great song has never been performed live). Continuing, "In God's Country" returns U2 to familiar territory with an old style rocker that sounds relaxed and confident (plus it has one of my favorite Edge guitar solos), while "Trip Through Your Wires" delivers a lighter harmonica-led sing along. Another personal favorite then commences with "One Tree Hill," a touching tribute to a deceased friend (the line "I'll see you again when the stars fall from the sky" gets me every time) that, appropriately enough, has a spiritual, hymn-like quality. Finally, the album winds down with "Exit," a darkly intense, tightly wound rocker with effective use of calm-before-the-storm dynamics, and "Mothers Of The Disappeared," which provides an atmospheric, low-key ending to the album (its hymn-like mood recalls prior closers “40” and “MLK” but this one is much longer and not quite as memorable). Actually, these last two are among the album's least notable songs, but that's mostly because of the company they keep, as this is one of those rare albums where almost every song is special. In short, the word "timeless" was coined to describe albums such as this, as The Joshua Tree expertly combines passionate, intelligent lyrics (with a nice mix of "important" political statements, some of which aimed pointed daggers at America, along with a more personal approach) with adventurous arrangements (again partially credit Eno and Lanois, who have produced most of the band's very best albums) and confident performances. This classic album cleaned up at all the major awards ceremonies, too, marking a rare case when commerce and artistic merit were in mutual agreement.
Rattle and Hum (Island ‘89) Rating: B+
After three superlative studio albums in a row, a letdown was inevitable. Still, though this long album (a soundtrack companion to their film of the same name) was a patchwork affair that contained several live songs and nine new studio songs, Rattle and Hum successfully reminded us that U2 was once a bare bones rock band. Hiring American producer Jimmy Iovine to strip away most of the moody studio embellishments of recent albums, this was U2 at their simplest and most straightforward in many a moon. That said, there was more than a hint of truth when the band's detractors claimed that they had become self-important and America-obsessed. After all, who were U2 to cover The Beatles and Bob Dylan, let alone latch onto the likes of B.B. King to boost their own credibility? Truth is, the two covers are unnecessary, but B.B. King benefited from their fine collaboration ("When Love Comes To Town") far more than U2, and Rattle and Hum contains its fair share of top-flight songs. Granted, the live versions ("I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "Pride (In The Name Of Love)," "Bullet The Blue Sky") don't really add to the band's legacy any, solid though they all are in their own completely varying ways ("I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" stands out since it’s the most adventurous re-imagining of the three), and the overly repetitive, Bo Diddley-ized "Desire" isn't one of the band's stronger singles (which isn’t to say it isn’t good, mind you, because it is). As for album tracks, "Van Diemen's Land" is a sparse, hymn-like song effectively sung by the Edge (who is no Bono in the vocal department), and "Hawkmoon 269" is a richly powerful, slow building epic that seemingly echoes the album's main theme: "I need your love." "Silver And Gold" was an easy to criticize track, with a preachy Bono monologue (“am I buggin’ ya?”) and an "OK Edge, play the blues" intro into a guitar solo that's decidedly un-bluesy. Of course, it's still a damn good solo, and the song itself is solid as well, despite Bono being on his high horse. The brassy pop of "Angel Of Harlem" (another hit single) was far more enjoyable, however, for though U2 were clearly appropriating American musical forms, they were doing so with a crafty resolve and a fan's enthusiasm. "Love Rescue Me," a spare ballad co-written with Bob Dylan (they obviously had his seal of approval), actually sounds a bit like Springsteen, and though I could do without the rock star complaining, I can appreciate the band's soulful performance. This time exhorting "I believe in love," "God Part II" can be seen as both a tribute to John Lennon and a danceable prelude to Achtung Baby, but it is "Heartland" and "All I Want Is You" that sound the most like "classic" U2 and which are arguably the album's standout songs (along with "Hawkmoon 269"). Cutting through all the b.s. that often seems to follow this band around, these songs again demonstrate that, first and foremost, U2 are simply one of the best sounding band's ever. The former song is led by an especially gorgeous falsetto vocal from Bono, while the latter builds beautifully, led by the Edge's ringing, escalating riffs and Bono's powerful vocals, which end the album on a majestic high. Unfortunately, for all the album's considerable strengths, it could've used a lot less ego and a little more originality, but for better or worse this album exemplifies why people both love and loathe U2. The oversized egos, courageous chance taking (this album was far removed from its predecessor), preachy political sermonizing, and highly personal pledges of love and faith are all ostentatiously on display, and though not all of it works, it's still refreshing to hear the band sound so raw and unencumbered. Alas, the album isn't all that it could've been with better planning and editing (I would’ve scrapped some of the live songs), but the majority of it is also much better than you've probably been led to believe.
Achtung Baby (Island ‘91) Rating: A+
After Rattle and Hum and its attendant tour, U2 were faced with substantial criticism for the first time in ages. As a result, the band retrenched, rethought their sound, and came back with this surprising masterpiece. The jagged, angular rhythms of “Zoo Station” and “The Fly” were completely unlike anything the band had ever attempted before, as the Edge wielded strange noises from his harsh, primitive sounding guitar, while Bono whispered mysteriously behind jackhammer rhythms. Elsewhere, though the Edge lends some great guitar licks to "Even Better Than The Real Thing," the song provided further evidence of the band's newfound reliance on dance rhythms, as did “Mysterious Ways,” an effervescent dance club smash that was one of the band’s most easily likeable singles ever. "Until The End Of The World" is notable for its great riffs, galloping groove, and religious lyrics that are wide open to interpretation, while "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" has a gorgeous guitar melody and is another supremely confident performance, particularly on its soaring chorus. "So Cruel" is another winner featuring a lone piano and another sparse, danceable beat, and though lush keyboards kick in later it's Bono's r&b-based vocal that really steals the show. "Trying To Throw Your Arms Around The World" seems like a lighter, slighter variation of that song musically, but it's still an enjoyable, if minor track, as is "Acrobat," an unjustly overlooked number notable for its tightly coiled intensity. Other highlights include "Ultra Violet (Light My Way)," on which the Edge's always-awesome guitar tone reaches a radiant peak, and "Love Is Blindness," a despairing blues dirge that ends the album on a down note (but most memorably so). Yet the album's piece de resistance is obviously "One," a wonderful ballad that's arguably U2's best song ever (indeed, I'd go so far as to say it's one of the best songs ever, period). The melody is flawless enough, but it's the lyrics, which are again personal and universal, and Bono's powerful delivery of them - his voice is just rough enough - that makes the song so moving even after the 500th listen (the Edge’s majestic guitar outro coupled with Bono’s falsettos is spine tingling). Whereas Rattle and Hum was overly political and not a little overblown, Achtung Baby is far more playful, as the band seems to be having fun again as they revel in their own reinvention. Of course, it isn't all fun and games, not by a long shot, as the album is arguably their darkest and most cynical to date, and the band's irony-laden lyrics are matched to an edgy but melodic sound that's smart, sophisticated, sexy (not a word typically associated with U2), and decidedly modern. Yet even though the band embraces dance rhythms and industrial soundscapes, time has shown Achtung Baby to be more of a piece with the rest of their discography than initially thought. A major difference is that Bono's vocals are mixed further back and are more restrained, while the rhythm section gives these filler-free songs an agitated edge. Still, most of the songs here sport the trademarks of classic U2: layers of shimmering guitar, a stellar rhythmic thrust, and Bono's beautiful voice, which takes more chances (deep baritone, falsetto crooning, electronic enhancements) than ever without once screaming for attention. The production is perfect, too (Lanois and Eno again), letting the album's wide range of emotions and extensive musical experimentation shine through while keeping a terrific, somewhat transformed band front and center.
Zooropa (Island ‘93) Rating: A-
After the successful image makeover of Achtung Baby, U2 came back with the equally adventurous Zooropa, which Bono correctly called "a surreal pop album." And though this album is often considered a disappointment and its attendant Zoo TV tour was an ambitious failure, I find Zooropa to be another fascinating piece of work, though it is a notch below their very best stuff. The colorful album cover art aptly foreshadows the album’s futuristic mood, as it's filled with all sorts of ambient atmospherics, as well as an occasional industrial clatter. A new producer is on board (Flood, who had previously worked with Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode) but Brian Eno still plays a major role (Edge also co-produces), and the band tries (and succeeds) to stay current, even sampling to reproduce the desired techno-derived atmospherics. The title track starts the album off on an ambitious note, as it's really three songs in one. The first two minutes of the song features a boring buildup, but the Edge (with help from Eno) then kicks in with an inconceivably gorgeous guitar tone, and the rhythm picks up at the 4-minute mark to take the song to its satisfying conclusion. "Babyface" contains a relaxed melody and an effectively multi-tracked vocal, but after that enjoyable if insubstantial tune, the band then veers off in another direction entirely, as "Numb" is highlighted by a harsh, repeating riff and an Edge rap (!!!), though Bono also weighs in with some background falsettos. Many fans were unimpressed, but I really like the song, especially since it shows off a rare sense of humor, as does "Lemon," an overly long but pretty fabulous Prince pastiche that's led by Bono's sweeping falsetto vocals. "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)" delivers more surreal pop with another relaxed melody (arguably the album's best) along with a soulful, pleading chorus plus airy backing vocals, but "Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car" kicks off the album's less impressive (but still good) second half with an overly busy industrial dance number that never really achieves ignition. That said, the song is a good example of the album's cynical, somewhat decadent nature, while "Some Days Are Better Than Others" provides an example of the band's lazy, list-derived lyrics, this time accompanied by a better (bass led) melody along with a rare Edge guitar solo. After several decidedly "produced" songs, "The First Time" delivers a relatively sparse and direct piano/synthesizer-led ballad, with Bono again breaking out his lovely falsetto singing voice as the soulful melody builds beautifully. Next up is "Dirty Day," a very good grower track with more surging dynamics, falsetto vocals, and shady atmospherics, as the album in general is often more about establishing a mood than truly memorable songs. Fortunately, there are several of those (memorable songs) as well, and the band really knows how to set a mood. Anyway, the album ends on a shockingly unexpected note with a Johnny Cash cameo on the gospel-ish "The Wanderer," but despite the track being a bit out of place the Man In Black acquits himself quite well. So does U2 throughout most of Zooropa, for even though the songwriting is a bit patchy and they've given up all pretense of being a straight ahead rock band, on most of Zooropa U2 remain sonic scientists of the first rank. Note: The excellent 1995 single "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" was by far the best thing about the woeful Batman Forever movie.
Pop (Island ‘97) Rating: B
U2 are too talented and experienced to make a bad album, but few fans would deny that Pop was something of a disappointment, especially coming after a four year layoff. The band themselves would later admit as much, suggesting that the album was rushed due to tour commitments; the band obviously misjudged how much time was needed for the recording process. In any event, this was supposed to be their “electronica” album, and though it is easily their most groove-based and danceable album yet, at least it wasn’t quite that. However, this was the third straight album on which they mined a mysterious, futuristic vein, with diminishing returns each time out. Maybe they missed Eno, and perhaps it’s time to get back to the basics of being an actual rock band, but it seemed to me that with this album U2 were desperately trying to stay contemporary and were therefore following trends instead of setting them. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very strong songs ("If God Will Send His Angels," "Last Night On Earth," "Gone," "Please," and "Wake Up Dead Man," for starters) on which they inject some soul into their techno-ized dance pop, and they still have a great sound. However, the essence of that sound is too often buried under torrents of samples and drum loops. Simply put, there’s too much in the way of sonic window dressing and not enough in the way of memorable melodies. As such, the album too often sounds forced, as if U2 wasn’t quite sure what they wanted to achieve this time out. For example, you get an electronic dance tune here (“Discotheque,” the album's first single, has grown on me but still isn't quite top-shelf U2) and a moody dance ballad there (“Staring At The Sun,” the album’s other solid but not quite inspired single), while murky, pulsating dance grooves (“Mojo,” the album's most electronica-like song, and a pretty good one at that) and hard-hitting, dirge-like religious tracts (“Wake Up Dead Man,” an overlooked gem of a finale that has a stellar Bono vocal and a riveting intensity) also appear, with little seemingly tying them all together. Granted, given their prior excellence my expectations for these guys are off the charts, and I like the album a little more each time I listen to it (and there’s so much going on here that repeat listens are required), which is certainly an encouraging sign. Really, I can only point out one truly bad song (the annoying "Miami," which can be put in the “failed experiment” pile) here, but several are unremarkable and Pop is probably the band’s least accomplished outing since October, making me wonder how much gas is left in the tank of this once peerless pop machine. Note: From an artistic standpoint, the resulting PopMart tour was even more disappointing than the Zoo TV tour, ironic song deliveries and ludicrous stage props having clearly run their course.
The Best Of 1980-1990/The B-Sides (Island ’98) Rating: A-
In my opinion U2 are the best rock band of the '80s and '90s in terms of continuous artistic achievement and growth, as well as in the way they’ve pioneered their own unique yet always-evolving sound. I own all of their albums, as do many of their fans, since U2 have always been consummate album artists whose individual albums were meticulously produced and sequenced. Therefore, I was actually disappointed to see this seemingly unnecessary album hit the racks, especially since some of U2’s best songs are lesser-known album tracks. Then again, their hits are generally really great, and at least the band had the good sense to stop before Achtung Baby, on which the band veered off in another direction altogether, plus the compiler has attempted to arrange these songs as an actual album, forsaking chronological sequencing. Usually I’m against this when it comes to compilations, but on this collection the maneuver works well in capturing an enticing overall flow. Plus, “Sweetest Thing [The Single Mix]” is a fine little remake of an earlier song that captures the playful pop side of the band, and which is hopefully a harbinger of what will soon be a return to the band’s earthier ‘80s roots. Initial pressings of the album came with a “limited edition” second disc that contained many of the band’s B-sides, along with other songs not previously available on any of U2’s albums proper. This 15-track cd is comprised of three well-done covers ("Dancing Barefoot," "Everlasting Love," "Unchained Melody"), several mood pieces ("Love Comes Tumbling," "Bass Trap," "Walk To The Water," "Endless Deep") that are pleasant enough but obviously not A-side material, and several gems ("Luminous Times (Hold on to Love)," "The Three Sunrises," "Spanish Eyes," "Sweetest Thing," "Hallelujah Here She Comes," "A Room at the Heartbreak Hotel," and "Trash, Trampoline and the Party Girl") that are the primary reason to own this collection. Of course, "The Three Sunrises" and "Love Comes Tumbling" are available on Wide Awake In America, “The Sweetest Thing” had already appeared on disc one (the differences between the two versions are fairly negligible), a superior live version of “Silver and Gold” can be found on Rattle And Hum, and “Trash, Trampoline and the Party Girl” is much better done on Under A Blood Red Sky (where it is titled simply “Party Girl”). Still, for hardcore fans these two discs are well worth owning; for one thing, it’s fun trying to figure out which album session these songs came from (for example, “Spanish Eyes” is an outtake from The Joshua Tree). Alas, it’s a shame that fans have to pay for songs that they already own in order to obtain The B-Sides, and that more pressings of this disc weren’t made available. If Island and U2 wanted to do right by the band’s fans they would’ve released these two discs as separate albums, with enough pressings to go around.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind (Island ‘00) Rating: A-
With Pop it had become apparent that the band’s pre-occupation with sonic experimentation and ironic presentation over heartfelt, accessible songs had run its course. “It’s about the songs now” says Bono, and with the aid of master mood manipulators Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who have produced most of the band’s very best work, the band has come through with a mostly mellow but by and large beautiful album. The "classic U2" sound is back, and though All That You Can’t Leave Behind doesn’t scale quite as high as grandiose earlier classics like The Unforgettable Fire or The Joshua Tree, this is partly due to the band’s more modest intentions. Still, songs such as “Beautiful Day” (the band's most easy to embrace single since "One") and the Grammy-winning “Walk On” soar on undeniable choruses, while “When I Look At The World” surges on the strength of the excellent rhythm section of bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. (it helps that the song features vintage performances from Bono and The Edge as well). Bono sings “I’m just trying to find a decent melody,” and he finds them throughout the album, whether on the simple strengths of “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” (one of several songs here that gained an added resonance post-9/11) and “In A Little While” (where Bono proves he can still make magic with mere "ooh"s; on a side note, I believe that Joey Ramone, who was always a man of impeccable taste, requested to hear this song on his deathbed), or the sweetly singable “Wild Honey” (on which the band's Irish roots are again readily apparent). Only “Elevation,” on which the band briefly returns to the dance clubs, does U2 stray from the game plan (I like the "Tomb Raider Mix" single version better), and “Peace On Earth,” about a 1998 terrorist bombing in Ireland, had me near tears the first time I heard it (resonant lyric: “their lives are bigger than any big idea.”). Elsewhere, Bono sings “I’m not afraid to live, I’m not afraid to die,” and indeed the band’s second greatest virtue is their lack of fear; they’ll risk sounding cheesy if it feels right and wear their hearts on their sleeves if the cause is just. Of course, their best asset remains their impeccable chemistry, as above all else U2 still has a great sound. That sound is predictably anchored by the Edge’s rich guitar textures and Bono’s stellar singing, which is generally at its most restrained, though he can still let loose when it's called for (witness "Kite," a big ballad). His vocals also have an appealingly rough edge throughout, and it perfectly complements a passionate and warmly inviting batch of intimate songs. Granted, there aren’t too many classic U2 singles to be found here, and the album trails off towards the end; "New York" expertly evokes the Big Apple lyrically but is unremarkable musically, and "Grace" is a pretty but boring piano ballad. However, with All That You Can’t Leave Behind, which works extremely well as an elegant whole, U2 have bounced back in a big way. P.S.: Although highly acclaimed at the time, in retrospect the album has been criticized for being to safe and unexciting, but I feel that the band’s crafty songwriting and passionate performances make up for the album’s shortcomings.
How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (Island ‘04) Rating: B+
Pretty amazing when you think that early U2 contemporaries like The Police and The Clash broke up in 1984 (well, The Clash should've broken up in 1984), yet here we are in 2005 and U2 are not only still around, but they still have their original lineup and are still making music that matters. Something of a continuation of the consistent quality of All That You Can’t Leave Behind but not benefiting from the post-Pop “back to basics” relief or post-9/11 resonance that made that album hit home with so many listeners, How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is simply another very good U2 album, though it arguably doesn’t do anything that the band hasn’t already done before. Still, U2 has earned some more of the same at this point, especially when the band’s mix of love, politics, and religion along with their shimmering music remains so potent. The album’s recording sessions were difficult, with many producers pitching in, but you’d never know it given how sparkling the album sounds, and even the less memorable songs like “Crumbs From Your Table” (memorable line: "where you live should not decide, whether you live or whether you die") and “Yahweh” still soar at times. “Love and Peace or Else,” a clunky, sometimes downright annoying (mostly due to Bono’s hammy vocals) attempt at an anthem, is the album’s only serious misfire that I can think of, though as per usual this album starts much stronger than it finishes. Still, though not much happens on “One Step Closer,” it happens (or doesn’t) quite pleasantly, and “Original Of The Species” is top-notch U2. Aside from the aforementioned “Love and Peace or Else,” side one is excellent. Like everyone else I’m sick of “Vertigo” from those ubiquitous iPod commercials, but it’s still a mighty fine first single, being both air guitar worthy and danceable. The second single, “All Because Of You,” also nods to an Achtung Baby-like danceability but is a little too simplistic, though I suppose it’s just rocking and catchy enough, making it fun if somewhat fluffy. Still, “Miracle Drug,” “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” and especially “City Of Blinding Lights” (another classic U2 single) are all stellar, with that classic Edge guitar chime, evocative atmospherics, and even a fabulous falsetto vocal from Bono on “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” a moving tribute to dear old dad. Elsewhere, Bono is puzzled by the mysteries of the opposite sex on “Man and a Woman,” but though U2 still may not have the answers they’re looking for, it’s always been the quest that matters most with them, and though some of this album has a U2-by-numbers feel, by and large they sound self-assured and confident throughout. At times lushly romantic, at other times fairly rocking (especially for a bunch of old geezers), above all else How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is a triumph of craft, as these wily old veterans know what they’re doing and are able to get the sounds that they seek (with or without Eno/Lanois). Sure, Bono may be a bigmouth who turns people off, but name me another quality band from way back in 1979 who can compete with these guys now.
No Line On The Horizon (Island, Interscope ‘09) Rating: B
After a spectacular 3-D concert film, U2 3D, was released in 2008, U2 came back after an even longer layoff than usual with No Line On The Horizon, another worldwide #1 album. This time out the buzz quickly faded, however, and reviews were mostly lukewarm aside from a typically absurd 5 star review in Rolling Stone (which recently awarded a similar grade to the also under-performing new Springsteen album). Produced by Eno and Lanois, who also contribute songwriting, the album does get off to a strong start with the fuzzy, highly rhythmic title track, while "Magnificent" sports the classic U2 sound and is a near-classic effort. "Moment Of Surrender," the band’s longest effort in some time at 7:24, is another atmospheric highlight due to its spiritual ambiance, Bono’s passionate vocals, a gospel-y chorus, and the Edge's soulful guitar solo. Actually, Edge solos spice up several songs here, including "Unknown Caller," another long-ish (6:02) album highlight also notable for its lovely guitar chime and chanted "oh oh oh" harmonies, which recall the band's early work. After that strong starting sequence comes "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight," which has a good melody, albeit one that overly recalls "City Of Blinding Lights," but the song is undone by cringe-worthy lyrics like "the right to be ridiculous is something I hold dear." You don't say, Bono, you don't say. Even worse is the awful "Get On Your Boots," a questionable choice as the albums first single, to put it mildly, and the big generic riffs and forced funk of "Stand Up Comedy" also don't work (at least for me they don’t), as this album sags badly in its mid-section. The rest of the album is solid but rarely inspired: "Fez – Being Born" is aurally pleasurable without being particularly memorable, "White as Snow" and "Cedars Of Lebanon" are a pair of spare, atmospheric ballads that are also a bit boring, and "Breathe" has a big hooky sound and is probably the best song on side two (after all, this is the other song that immediately comes to mind containing a memorable Edge guitar solo) even if it's a bit U2-by-numbers. On the whole, this album is more experimental than their last two straightforward but winning efforts, and in fact it's the band's most overtly "atmospheric" (a word I’ve used way too many times in this review!) album since The Unforgettable Fire or at least Zooropa. However, No Line On The Horizon falls short of both earlier works simply because it lacks great songs and has some obvious filler. Perhaps Bono is too busy trying to win a Nobel Peace Prize as the world's spokesman to put in the required effort to make U2 great again, or maybe it's unrealistic to expect such a thing at this point, 30 years after Boy (think of U2 as the Stones in 1994 or so). However, solid though most of this album is, there's no getting around the fact that Coldplay is out U2-ing U2 right now.
Songs Of Innocence (Island, Interscope '14) Rating: B
When did U2 become the band that could do no right instead of the band that could do no wrong? I think it has very little to do with the band’s actual music, though that has admittedly seen diminishing returns over the years, and more to do with Bono’s persona, which many find overbearing. The tipping point may have been Rattle and Hum, in particular the hectoring “am I buggin’ ya?” idiocy, but then again Achtung Baby was a deserved smash so maybe not. Regardless, one would think that giving away an album for free would’ve been well-received, but that certainly wasn’t the case when this album was freely downloaded to all iTunes users, whether they wanted it or not. After the fact U2 admitted that, though their intentions were good, perhaps it was rather obnoxious of them to foist their album on the unsuspecting, though I think the band got way too much negative publicity for what was a decent gesture (keeping in mind I don’t know how much iTunes paid them for their “generosity”). Let’s face it, when your album is greeted as spam by so many people it means that it’s probably not that great, and sure enough this continues the band’s recent trend of delivering solid, workmanlike albums that I rarely elect to play after initially getting acquainted with them (after all there are many superior earlier U2 albums to choose from). Then again, this is a good album, U2 has never made a bad one, and it’s certainly more consistent than the last album, though it lacks easily discernible highlights. Right now, I’d single out “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” “Every Breaking Wave,” “Song For Someone,” and “Raised By Wolves” (probably my favorite due to it evoking War-era U2) as the best songs, but again this albums strength (and weakness) is in its consistency. There are bits that make other songs stand out as well, such as the Beach Boys influence at the beginning of “California (There Is No End To Love),” the faster pace and hooky vocals of “Iris (Hold Me Close),” Clayton’s prominent bass on “Volcano,” the heavier riffs on “Cedarwood Road,” the juxtaposition between soft and loud on “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight,” the strange keyboard sounds on “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” and Lykke Li’s guest vocals helping out on “The Troubles.” So, U2 are still trying new things, for which they should be commended, but the simple fact is that though this album is consistently listenable, it's rarely truly memorable and again the band has released much better albums before (let’s face it all great bands end up competing with their past at some point if they stick around long enough). I doubt I’ll play this album much now that I’ve written this review, but it’s still a solid effort given that U2 are a part-time band of aging multi-millionaires.
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