Reviewed on this page:
Boy - October - War - Under A Blood Red Sky - The Unforgettable Fire - Wide Awake In America - The Joshua Tree - Achtung Baby - Zooropa -
Passengers - Original Soundtracks 1 - Pop
It's easy for me to say I'm a U2 fan - I practically grew up with them. As a teenager, U2 represented the only clear alternative to the three ridiculous extremes rock had worked itself into: bombastic arena rock a la Aerosmith, self-mocking New Wave a la the B-52's, and braindead punk rock a la the Ramones. Here was a group that could rock out on old-fashioned guitar, bass, and drums, but keep its head above water with clever lyrics and soaring vocals - Bono was a lead singer whose impressive vocal range and emotive phrasing forced you to take him seriously.
Coming straight from Ireland, they had the street cred to write gritty political protest songs like "Sunday Bloody Sunday," but the good sense to keep it short and to the point. The closest thing to them was the Police, another band I like, but not one with a heck of a lot to say. By the time I got to college in the mid-80s U2 had suddenly veered off in assorted directions - Top 40 pop, "roots" Americana, and finally the "alternative" synth-pop that they're still putting out these days. All of this was a turn-off at first, but in truth a lot of good music has come out of it.
U2 has had some other limitations. Their rhythm section is nothing special to my ears, despite being very solid and frequently danceable - Adam Clayton often plays a chord progression's tonic notes in clocklike 8/8 time all the way through a tune. And from a guitarist's point of view, the Edge's playing is technically unimpressive. But technique aside, his inventiveness, unerring rhythmic instinct, and creative use of guitar effects gives the band its distinctive instrumental sound, and he has to be ranked as one of the most influential players of the 80s. Combined with Bono's balladeering, the result is magic.
At the moment I'm missing a couple of U2 albums, but I've heard almost all of them over the years, and I'll try to rebuild my collection as I go along.
I have reviewed a book on U2 that might be of interest.
I've tracked down the semi-official U2 site, and the U2 lyric archive I saw is apparently more carefully researched than its competitors. There's an interesting site that chronicles the early 80s New Wave scene in L.A., including a couple of pieces on U2. (JA)
Personnel: Bono (Paul Hewson: vocals), Adam Clayton (bass), The Edge (Dave Evans: guitar, some vocals and keyboards), Larry Mullen (drums).
The group's first three records were produced by Steve Lillywhite, who gave them a hard-edged, but melodic sound. Their debut frequently veers towards the New Wave disco beat of, say, Blondie ("A Day Without Me"), but the relentless, rumbling rhythm section owes much more to punk, and there isn't a keyboard anywhere in sight.
Instead, most of the tonal variation is provided by subtle percussion, stereo cross fades, keening backup vocals, massive echo, and the Edge's grab-bag of guitar effects. There's plenty of good material here, many of the tunes being driving, stripped-down sing-alongs with catchy beats like "I Will Follow" and "The Electric Co."; and the Edge is given plenty of room for his technically simple, but emotionally effective soloing. This is a fine example of raw, genuine rock 'n' roll with just enough trimmings to keep it from ever getting stale. (JA)
The leadoff track here is the memorable single "Gloria"; it's not a drippy love song or a retread of the old Them hit, but a heartfelt rocker with sincerely religious lyrics and a great slide guitar solo. After all these years it still stands as one of U2's best recordings. Unfortunately, though, the rest of the record just isn't a substantial advance; "Rejoice" and "With A Shout" are fine riff-based rock songs, but they derive from the same formula as U2's earlier efforts.
And despite all the atmosphere and drama the tunes are often fragmentary and repetitive: "Tomorrow," which does build effectively and features some cool Irish pipes; "Scarlet," a mood piece with a one-word lyric; and "Is That All?," a self-referential question if there ever was one. Since U2 already had mastered dynamics, riffery, and emotional phrasing, the major progression is in the instrumentation: the Edge adopts the piano with enthusiasm, and he manages to serve up some basic but effective riffs - the bombastic, intricately arranged "I Fall Down" and the skeletal, but haunting title track are the best examples. Not a landmark effort, but a good buy if you're already crazy about Boy and War. (JA)
The band's international breakthrough record, primed by a couple of fantastically cathartic A-sides: "New Year's Day" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday." It includes a few memorable ballads like the funky "Two Hearts Beat As One," with a nice counterpoint vocal and an echoey rhythm guitar, and the uplifting hymn "40," but even here the band rocks out in an irresistable manner. At times the music is thin, but it rarely drags, and on balance the song material is stronger than on the preceding records.
At this point the group was messing around even more with studio experiments like minimalistic piano lines, female backup vocals, electric violin, piles of guitar overdubs, and even pedal steel guitar courtesy of the Edge - although it only detracts from the music's power on the lengthy deep-space flipout anthem "Surrender." The lyrics are also particularly good here: the title track merely hints at the stark anger of protest songs like "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Like A Song." This was the end of the Steve Lillywhite era, although he's worked with the band occasionally since then. (JA)
Under A Blood Red Sky (1983)
A cut-and-dry live record, but it's a better deal than Rattle And Hum, and the best way to hear what U2 sounded like in concert back in its early, pre-techno days. The main problem is that outside of the studio, the band's lack of technical sophistication and reliance on a single lead instrument - the Edge's guitar - made them a bit monotonous.
The track selection consists of predictable material like "Gloria," New Year's Day," "I Will Follow," etc., with the exceptions being mildly amusing: some minor album tracks like "The Electric Co.," and a pair of fun, light-weight single sides that don't appear on their studio records ("11 O'Clock Tick Tock," actually their first single; "Party Girl"). Another problem here is the short running time, with only eight tunes; when issued originally as a bargain-basement "mini-LP" the album was a good buy, but on CD it's a marginal value. (JA)
The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
The beginning of U2's long association with Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno; the band retreated to an Irish castle to record it. My initial reaction was to think the record's pretension index was off the scale - spacey synth parts, meandering jams, massive echo, studio gimmicks, the works; almost nothing was left of the band's earlier, near-punk phase. But take my word for it, after a while it grows on you.
There's a ton of high points: the high voltage, digital delay-marinated "Wire"; "Bad," with its dramatic "wide awake" refrain; the hit title track, an anti-nuke protest song; the creepy hymn "MLK"; and "Pride (In The Name Of Love)," an emotionally effective Martin Luther King tribute that became U2's first Top 40 single in the U.S. There are a couple of plodding, touchy-feely tunes here like the nebulous "Elvis Presley And America," but generally this is the best place to hear U2's Lanois-Eno sound and hyper-sincere 80s politicizing. (JA)
Wide Awake In America (1985)
This is a real disappointment - a modest four-track EP, with two cuts being live versions of songs from Unforgettable Fire ("Bad" and "A Sort Of Homecoming"). They're both weak, and the lullabye-like "Bad" shambles on for eight minutes, enough to put you to sleep.
The other two selections are outtakes from the album's sessions: "Three Sunrises" is pretty and has a good beat, but apart from the Edge's interesting chordal guitar line there's nothing memorable about it.
And "Love Comes Tumbling" is just another toss-off built up around one of the band's characteristically moody riffs.
Unfortunately, this rather thin concoction is almost always priced as if it were a full-length CD; don't pay more for it than you absolutely have to.
Over the following two years U2 was out of action, which left a lot of fans like myself wondering what the heck was going on.
However, in '86 Bono did write a song for an anti-apartheid charity album and recorded it with Keith Richards and Ron Wood. (JA)
The Joshua Tree (1987)
A huge hit; it topped the charts and went quintuple platinum. The first four tracks all got massive airplay - "Where The Streets Have No Name," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "With Or Without You," and "Bullet The Blue Sky" (the first three were smash Top 40 singles). But I find it longwinded, languid, and lackluster. Here Bono seems unable to write a lyric without including an endlessly repeated feel-good refrain, even though he does come up with a pile of striking images in his verses.
The rest of the group usually just plods along for four or five minutes without any new ideas.
And despite a few experiments including country-western flavors ("Trip Through Your Wires"), the Lanois-Eno team sticks with the same old Unforgettable Fire production gloss. Still, the record's cluttered with catchy tunes, pulsing bass lines, jagged rhythm guitar parts, and soaring vocals, and it's just impossible to dislike. The band had seriously gotten into the charity record thing at this point, and appeared as a unit on a Christmas album this year in addition to guesting on a Robbie Robertson record. (JA)
Rattle And Hum (1988)
An abrupt shift as U2 boldly declares its mastery of American "roots" music: folk, country, blues, and even gospel all appear on this longwinded live and studio double album. To prove the point, they drag in stars like B. B. King and Bob Dylan.
The record topped the charts despite critical disapproval, and the cathartic "Desire" was their first gold single if "only" a #3 hit. The sermony "Angel Of Harlem" was the record's other major success. But the music is thin all around, and the sales had mostly to do with expectations being primed by Joshua Tree and with the concurrent, unsuccessful release of a concert film. The live stuff includes versions of "Pride," "Bullet The Blue Sky," and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," retreaded with backing by a bona fide gospel choir.
Worse still, the band covers "Helter Skelter" and "All Along The Watchtower," a foolish attempt to one-up their betters; there's even a snippet of Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner" taped off of the PA system at one of their concerts (!). In 1988 U2 also appeared on a Woody Guthrie/Leadbelly tribute record. (JA)
Achtung Baby (1991)
This is a step up, at least from the last record: more of the Lanois-Eno dance-techno-spaceout thing, but with some real energy, imagination, and emotion, and none of the self-conscious Americana and goody-goody politics of the last couple records. My favorite of the hits here is "The Fly," a dance number with a throbbing beat and a charmingly disorted lead guitar part that Bono lifts with dueling "low" and "gospel" vocals. Most of the better numbers are in the same Euro-alternative vein (or even the same key), like "Zoo Station," with tinkling percussion and a distorted vocal.
The singles "One" and "Mysterious Ways," with its industrial beat and great "it's alright" refrain, also got a lot of airplay. And there's plenty of good old-fashioned anthemic rock 'n' roll here for fans, despite the deceptively freaky production values. U2's creepy, soaring version of Cole Porter's "Night And Day," recorded earlier for the Porter tribute/AIDS charity album Red Hot & Blue, was a hit the same year. (JA)
In 1992 the Edge appeared on a Ron Wood solo album. (JA)
By now the band had now gone totally techno-pop, which isn't necessarily a bad thing - all the tape loops, hip-hoppy synth beats, and deep-space guitar effects are fun and creative.
But even the better stuff here simply rambles: the druggy title track, which is preceded by two minutes of ambient noise; "Baby Face" and the single "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)," two slow ballads with gorgeous lead vocals; "Lemon," a longish synth-disco number with another one of Bono's uncanny falsetto parts; and "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car," a menacing techno experiment.
And then there's a dopey, childishly satirical techno-country tune that even Johnny Cash's marvelous, velvety guest vocal can't salvage ("The Wanderer").
"Some Days Are Better Than Others" and "Dirty Day" are the closest things to old-style U2 anthems; the former gets an interesting, minimalistic bass line but isn't substantial, and the latter dissipates its amusing, wah wah-soaked, one-dumb-riff choruses with tuneless verses.
The vague and dull lyrics supposedly were inspired by cyber-punk sci-fi author William Gibson.
The first record after parting with Lanois, produced by Eno, the Edge, and engineer Flood. Eno adds a lot of synth parts and carries the tune on the atmospheric, meandering testimonial "The First Time." (JA)
Passengers - Original Soundtracks 1 (1995)
A supposed compilation of "soundtrack" tunes from make-believe movies by make-believe directors, the band's one true vanity record is packed with incoherent experiments (for example, industrial noises and sleepy sax on "Corpse" and "United Colours").
Co-producer Eno puts a clear stamp on the minimalistic, ethereal, and often pointless instrumentals ("Theme From The Swan"); guitar parts are few and far between; and Bono is mostly absent.
Even worse, there's a distracting parade of guest vocalists: Clayton, the Edge, and Eno; Japanese singer Holi (who sings gorgeously on the fascinating mood piece "Ito Okashi"); and Luciano Pavarotti (he drops in like a hurricane on the routine U2 ballad "Miss Sarajevo").
You can see why the record was credited to the "Passengers" instead of "U2."
And it's no surprise that the good moments all spotlight Bono: mixmaster Howie B's tribalistic showcase groove "Elvis Ate America," with Bono's arresting free-association Elvis imitation; "Slug" and "Always Forever," which each end with some romantic crooning; the fragmentary U2 rocker "Theme From Let's Go Native"; and the wimpy ballad "Your Blue Room," with yet more falsetto-vs.-baritone dueling.
The record is a footnote in the band's catalogue, with just three or four finished pieces. But anyone who enjoys the band's other 90s records will find it moderately entertaining. (JA)
A studio album released in March, 1997.
Co-producers Flood, Howie B, and Steve Osborne tweak heavily; all three contribute synth parts and tape loops, the mixes and electronic effects are complex, and Marius De Vries also appears on keyboards.
But with Eno gone the band does seem much more in control.
Only a few numbers rely heavily on electronic gimmickry ("Miami"; the thumping, threateningly ominous single "Discothèque"; the aggravating techno toss-off "Mofo"), and instead the Edge's creatively distorted guitar and keyboard parts are often prominent.
The tunes are better-crafted and the lyrics are more interesting (the crawling, R & B-based social satire "Playboy Mansion"; "If God Will Send His Angels" and the moody, dynamic acid rocker "Wake Up Dead Man," both thoughtful if blatantly religious).
But almost every track runs five minutes, so it often bogs down (the ethereal "If You Wear That Velvet Dress," with a lot of noodling guitar).
And even the best stuff is so polite it barely gets your foot tapping: compare their vague protest tune "Please" and its limp jazz/hip-hop shuffle with, say, "Sunday Bloody Sunday."
Still, there's plenty to like: a groovy anthem ("Do You Feel Love"), a couple of pretty power ballads in their classic style ("Gone"; "If God Will Send His Angels"), an acoustic guitar-based sing-along number ("Staring At The Sun"), a funky rocker with layers of trippy guitars ("Last Night On Earth").
A step up from Zooropa, although it won't do much for the group's older fans. (JA)
The Best Of 1980-90 (1998)
We don't normally even mention compilation albums, but this one has three things going for it: first, it's supposedly budget-priced; second, it includes a full disc's worth of B-sides that I for one have never heard; and finally, all of the old album stuff is segregated onto another disc, so you can just ignore it if you're sick to death of the group's monster hits from the late 80s - I certainly am. I'll try to track down a cheap used copy, but don't hold your breath because U2's records are almost always massively overpriced. (JA)
All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000)
A new studio album, released in October 2000 and reportedly even more of a return to their 80s sound than Pop was. (JA)
Sheesh, I still haven't found what I'm looking for....