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Strongest album: The Joshua Tree
Must to avoid: Zooropa

Screw irony, you're better off looking sincere and ridiculous than smug and cynical, as U2's disastrous '90s career has proved. Kids today have every reason to despise the walking embodiment of everything vile and reprehensible about corporate rock - '90s U2 are like decadent Pink Floyd, all mammoth concert spectacle dry-ice et al, "progressive" music that you have to get stoned to "appreciate" (Electronica is the future?- yeah, right. The shit's old, you mindless Spin-reading lemming: the Village People were doing disco remixes 20 years ago, and today's Eurotrash Eurodance Sprockets rave craze is going to hold up as good as Kraftwerk - that is, dinky, dorky, and sounding like shit. I don't know, maybe I have to spend 2 in the morning in a deserted aircraft hanger in England tripping on Ecstacy to "get it"). I've got nothing against dance music, as long as it's got a beat I can dance to, and actually does something interesting in a while, neither of which U2's new music does at all. Okay, enough of that - you get the point. Once upon a time U2 did some really innovative things in a traditional rock band with guitars format, which is much more difficult because you have to actually know how to play your instruments and stuff, you can't just program beats and samples into a computer and call that "innovation". The rythm section you could take or leave (see, that's why they suck at dance music - they've got this clunky 4/4 beat that's good for driving, anthemic rock, but doesn't swing!), but that Edge (not his real name) had this incredible minimalistic, ringing guitar tone. He didn't play many notes, but he always picked the exact right ones, and kind of grooved off this atmospheric drone that had its roots in Arabic modulations (via Thin Lizzy and Tom Verlaine and the Velvet Underground and PIL's only good song "Public Image" and who knows what else) but wound up sounding like helicoptering bagpipes (okay, then you try to describe that guitar sound). As for Bono (not his real name), he shouted as if he'd spent his Catholic childhood singing nothing but Gregorian chants, but he's singing the devil's music now and has to make some noise, and thankfully he has a good enough voice to justify his operatic intensity, though eventually his ego would get the better of his voice. At this juncture in my life, knowing a bit more about rock history than I did at 13 when I discovered The Joshua Tree and thought it was the greatest album ever, I can see the inevitable Zeppelin/Who comparisons that older critics liked to point out back in the day. Of course, Zeppelin didn't have enough brains and the Who were too dependent on Townshend's hit-or-miss songwriting to ever produce albums as consistently great as Boy and The Joshua Tree, though like all pompous operatic rockers, all three bands were sometimes too clunky, clumsy, and overbearing to sit through. So just be careful with that back catalog, will you? U2 had this habit of releasing subpar albums side by side with masterpieces - so with no further ado, here are the reviews.

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Boy (1980) *****

It's hard to believe this was produced mere teenagers - it possesses a depth and fully-blown musical vision that most bands struggle their entire career to approach, and here they are getting everything perfect first time at bat. Definitely postpunk, and more European than they'd ever sound again - I'd use the word goth to describe the atmosphere if I knew that wouldn't leave you the wrong impression: though dark and mystic the atmosphere is, it's not gloomy. Playing this back to back with Unknown Pleasures affirms that they'd been listening heavily to the first Joy Division LP - bass carrying the melody, the jaggedly minimalist guitar riffs, the emphasis on atmosphere and melodrama, as well as "A Day Without Me", reportedly inspired by Ian Curtis' suicide. Between the debut and The Joshua Tree it's a coin toss, though I give the latter the edge for its extramusical cultural signifigance. Leads off with "I Will Follow", the type of anthemic material U2 are masters at, and ends with "Shadows And Tall Trees", some subTolkien crap I used to hate but for some reason hit me one day as a great song. In between are at least a half dozen classics, enough to make you easily overlook the silly "The Ocean" and half-developed exercises like "The Electric Company" (did they recieve that show over in Ireland?). Like a lot of new bands circa 1980, U2 are minimalistic, but in their own special way: instead of three-chord punk or bouncy new wave, they develop an intelligent sound that employs each part of the four-piece for maximum effect. Adam Clayton plays bass very simply, but the arrangements allow for his bass to play a very integral role, propelling the beat while shading the melody at the same time. Even on uninteresting material like "Stories For Boys", the band interplay never ceases to hold interest. Fortunately, the vast majority of the material amazes - "Into The Heart" (innocent), "Another Time, Another Place" (dreamlike), "Out Of Control" (punky), "An Cat Dubh" (lustful).

October (1981) ***

Their first misstep. U2 engage the listener with the same sound as the debut, but with vastly inferior material; only "Gloria" has held up over all these years as a U2 standard. Producer Steve Lillywhite tries to push the boys away from minimalism into new vistas of sound, but the added flourishes are so tentative you wonder why the band even bothered. "Is That All" comes close to par, but "I Threw A Brick Through A Wall", "Stranger In A Strange Land", etc., fall short. Bono overshouts at his worst, trying to make grandiose gestures with his bombastic religious posturing ("Tomorrow" about the Second Coming, "Rejoice" about guess what). Overall, the band's attack is muted and the result sounds diffuse - U2 have succumbed to the perils hinted at by the debut's weaknesses. In its defense, the album isn't a bad listen - you can dig in to the textures, and most of the songs are almost really good, but fail due to what seems to be unfinished songwriting. Did the band rush too fast through this? It sounds like it.

War (1983) ****

Now this is more like it. U2, the angry political prophets, arrive on this album; Bono's previous vague lyric indulgences have sharpened into focus on topics that actually say something specific about the world and its troubles. This aptly named disc leads with "Sunday Bloody Sunday", a martial anti-war chant concerning Northern Ireland that transcends its specific target to become an anthem for everyone fed up and sick of religious intolerance, which as a Southerner I sure as hell know a lot about. "New Year's Day" is even better, a plead for Utopia in which Bono comes off as hopelessly naive, but the music's majesty carries you away, as carefully sprinkled piano keys touch down over the bed of Clayton's heartbeat pulse. The Edge plays more conventionally rock'n'rolly, always keeping his solos good and short in a cheering display of lack of ego. I wish I could say the same about the singer, but Bono's wailing gives the performances a passionate intensity. Larry Mullen does himself proud, particularly on "Like A Song" and "Two Hearts Beat As One", though that's probably due to the mix as much as anything - it skewers the sound a bit too heavily too the bass end of the spectrum. A bold step forward for the band, it falls a tad short of being the masterpiece some claim for it for the boring old reason of inconsistency. Sure, "Refugee" and "40" are classics, but the ten minutes it takes you to get between them and "Red Light" and "Surrender" are ten very wasted minutes. "Seconds" is a chant with sound bites in place of a solo, the sawing violin on "Drowning Man" makes it hard for me to sit through, and "Sunday Bloody Sunday" was done ten times better in its live version. Still, a near-great album - it just has a few flaws.

Under A Blood Red Sky (1983) ****

A live album with a running time of half an hour, you might reasonably ask yourself why you need this. Well, let me tell you this, and I say this as a person who couldn't care less about live albums by anybody: you need this album if you care about U2. In fact, if you're new to U2, this might be the place to start. While the song selection isn't ideal, every one of these performances save "New Year's Day" blows away its studio counterpart. "Gloria" kicks festivities off with an adrenaline bang, "40" closes the set with a moving sing-along, and the centerpiece of show is an enraged "Sunday Bloody Sunday". Two of these eight songs are new to album buyers, and while neither "11 O'Clock Tick Tock" and "Party Girl" are that great, completists will be glad to encounter them. Forget about The Who Live At Leeds, Cheap Trick At Budokan, the MC5 at the '68 Democratic National Convention - this is the greatest live album ever recorded, and one of the very, very, very rare essential ones. _________________________________________________________________________________
The Unforgettable Fire (1984) ***1/2

U2 took on a new producer for this album, a fellow by the name of Eno. Brian Eno, that is, and he sure changed the lads' sound. He gave it a depth of sonic detail that the band couldn't have dreamed of on its early albums, and the soundscapes herein are dreamy, hallucinatory, intriguingly textured, and will put you to sleep if you don't watch out. The problem with this record is that U2 are new to this type of approach, so they meander all over the place with half-baked experiments that are as close to embarassing pre-'90s U2 got. For every good song, there's a "Elvis Presley and America", the title alone of which should scare you off. However, the good stuff is as great as U2 get. Ever hear of this tune called "Pride (In The Name Of Love)"? Sure, Bono plays Oliver Stone and changes a detail for dramatic effect (MLK's asassination occurred later in the day, not in the morning), but that's a minor nitpick: this song is as good as U2 gets, which means it's as good as political rock, or rock in general for that matter, gets. The title track cascades with pure majesty, allowing Bono to croon lines about mountains crumbling into the sea and have it come across as poetry. "Bad", despite its improvement in live performance, is still mighty powerful in its studio rendition; and of course "A Sort Of Homecoming" isn't bad. So the album's split evenly pretty great and bad, which makes it the most curious of U2 albums, and the most difficult for me to make my mind up about.

Wide Awake In America EP ** (1985)

A reasonably worthwhile stopgap between albums, this contains a live version of "Bad," that eclipses the studio version, along with a good live version of "A Sort of Homecoming." "Three Sunrises," and "Love Comes Tumbling," are decent studio outtakes, though it's easy to see why the band didn't place them on The Unforgettable Fire. As you had have it, though, this modest little EP generally retails at full CD price, making it a complete waste of money save for the most fanatical (or wealthy) of followers. Screw it - wait until the year 2005 when it's appended to The Unforgettable Fire as bonus tracks. I found my tape for a buck, by the way.

The Joshua Tree (1987) *****

First of all I have to let you in on my personal bias towards this album (god forgive that a critic should have a personal opinion!). This was the first album that I fell in love with, way back in the eighth grade when I listened to nothing but this album every night for three months straight. And do you know why? Because I grew up in the '80s, when all radio ever played was crap like Tiffany and Poison, and for the first time I heard real music. So you'll forgive me if for many years I considered this to be as perfect a record as rock has ever produced. In retrospect it's more flawed than I remembered it being. After the initial three-song burst of brilliance - "Where The Streets Have No Name", "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", and "With Or Without You" - the rest of the record doesn't quite match up. Yet how could it?-those initial three songs are the pinnacle of U2, and to tell the truth, aside from the nondescript closer "Mothers Of The Disappeared", there really isn't a bad song to be found here. "Trip Through Your Wires" may be slight, and a lot weaker than the tracks surrounding it, but even it holds interest due to its weird take on the blues. You see, this is the album in which U2 fall in love with America. They incorporate gospel and blues, even a little country, influences into their sound. You may hate the Hendrix-y tunelessness of "Bullet The Blue Sky", but Bono's monologue on the bridge makes the song worthwhile; the next song "Running To Stand Still" is very quiet and very powerful, effortlessly displaying the album's variety and depth. The cinematic "Red Hill Mining Town" should have been a single, but the jangly "God's Country" (about the myth of America) was instead. Some might find "Exit" too melodramatic, but bombastic melodrama is the reason U2 exist - it's an eerie, great song. A landmark album for the '80s, it's my generation's Sgt. Pepper or Never Mind The Bollocks - if you grew up in the 1980s and didn't own a copy, you were either a metalhead who didn't like this "wussy stuff" or just plain tone deaf.

Reader Comments
Rich/MetalMan, cbunnell@ix.netcom.com

Hmm, "Joshua Tree" was the album where U2 fell in love with America? I'd think that "The Unforgettable Fire" would be that album, considering the highly American subject matter of the songs on it -- "Elvis Presley and America," "MLK," "4th of July," and "Pride" being about the murder of MLK.

Rattle And Hum (1988) ***

Problematic, to say the least. U2's obsession with America reaches its apex, as Bono exhorts the Edge to "play the blues". U2 dabble in the kind of roots rock beloved by Rolling Stone and its yuppie readers. It'd all be easier to take if their version of the blues wasn't watered down for beer commercials, but I guess the B.B. King duet gave the old man some much-needed royalties if nothing else. Actually, I really like their tribute to Billie Holiday, "Angel Of Harlem", and "Desire" kicks even if both are subpar compared to their earlier work. However, those two songs are the highlights of a double album that's messy, unfocused, and inconsistently all over the place. The live covers are curiously terrible, especially the pompous slaughter of "Helter Skelter" - if this as good as U2 can do, then Charles Manson can keep it. The Edge sings the moving "Van Diemen's Land" in a frail croak that at this point is more affecting than Bono's ego-inflated wail. They follow the John Lennon tribute, "God, Pt. 2", with a completely unnecessary Hendrix tribute, "Star Spangled Banner". Still, it's an interesting album at least, even if not all that listenable all the way through, and I really wish the band had continued in this direction rather than the path they decided to take.

Achtung Baby (1991) ***

After a long wait, U2 released the proper followup to the immortal Joshua Tree, and the world found itself - disappointed. In retrospect, this isn't a bad album, but it suffers from half-hearted experimentation that's nowhere near as compelling as their earlier sonic glories, and uninspired songwriting that feels like formula. Bono switches from the political to the personal, and the only problem is that he has nothing interesting to say about love - he offers cliches about riding wild horses, two can make one, I'll stay with you until the end of the world, love is blind, she moves in mysterious ways, love can be so cruel. Any more wisdom you'd like to impart, sensei? The Edge plays some interesting guitar, I'll give him that, but he overplays. You know how singers oversing and it ruins the material? Well, the Edge tries to impress us so much with his new bag of tricks that he ruins the songs and gives me a headache. The rythm section is still the rythm section, except older, which means slower - which is really bad, because without a good rythm section, a rock band can't rock. Which means U2 can't rock anymore, and since the rythm section can't swing, they can't dance, either, which makes them useless. So that only leaves them one option, to be a catchy pop band. At this U2 succeed, partially, because formulaic though the song structures are - verse, chorus, verse, solo, verse, chorus, refrain - they're at least melodic and generally catchy in an arena-rock bombastic way. You can just see the stoners waving their Bics when "One" comes on. Not terrible, but not all that good either - it's competent product, nothing more, nothing less. In the context of what U2 did before, a major letdown; but compared to what they did afterwards, it sounds like a masterpiece....

Zooropa (1993) **1/2

This is where a lot of former fans (including myself) jump ship, and it's got nothing to do with the fact that U2 have changed their sound by experimenting with dancebeats. In retrospect, this album sounds pretty damn conventional, and already dated. No, the problem is that U2 have turned into a bloated corporate/art-rock outfit. Just look at the song lengths - the shortest tune is 3:45, and a couple hover slightly under seven minutes. One of the more appealing values of pop, in its formal post-Beatles/Motown definition, is its concision, and one can trace a band's decay from youthful short-attention span exuberance to pushing-40 taking-my-time sagginess is incremently increasing song lengths (the Who parallel holds here quite tellingly). Now this wouldn't matter if U2 were attempting certain other forms that really are challenging and experimental, such as avante-jazz, but U2 aren't doing anything of the sort. These are simply standard pop songs, considerably less melodic and hooky than Achtung Baby's, dressed up with second-hand gestures the lads overheard in Eurodiscoes. If the third-rate psuedo-goth build-up of "Zooropa" hasn't put you to sleep before the actual song kicks in, you'll find a shockingly melody-less trite pun on "Europa", some flip German, and an attempt at the type of atmospheric stuff done ten times better and with more conviction by Joy Division a decade earlier. Next comes one of the album's more straightforward pop songs, "Babyface", which contains the most banal lyrics Bono has ever written - maybe he's being "ironic" and intentional, but like I care. The third song was the single, a rather odd choice since it's the most uncommercial song on the album, "Numb". "Numb" lamely reworks the Buzzcocks' "Different Kind of Tension" with its thudding processed guitar driving the rythm and a list of "Don't"'s mumbled by the Edge. "Lemon" finds Bono affectedly adopting this frankly annoying slippery falsetto and refusing beyond sense and reason to sing in a normal voice - look, Mr. Fly, Prince you ain't. "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others" - oh, excuse me, "Some Days Are Better Than Others" sounds like the type of material than Nashville hacks write in their sleep and tuck away as filler on Randy Travis albums. Supporting this theory exactly is closing the album with Johnny Cash singing "The Wanderer" - Cash's monotonic baritone rumble cruelly exposes the melodic one-dimensionality of this fairly dull country tune, because he can't distract you with all kinds of voice tricks like Bono does. Far from being some sort of breakthrough piece of edgy experimentalism, this album is nothing more than competent but tired product, as the paint-by-numbers tunes attest. Furthermore, even though the it purports to be hip and up to date, not since Boy have their late '70s post-punk roots been so obvious.

Reader Comments

Ben Greenstrein, bgreenstein@nctimes.net

Oh, come on. It's not THAT bad. "Lemon" is, in my opinion, a really great song, and some of the others certainly aren't bad. I particularly enjoy "Stay" and, for some reason, the title track. What weighs this album down is the lackluster second side and the annoying "Babyface." But it's all enjoyable. I give it a three.

Pop (1997)

Their latest album, and I've avoided it because I can barely stomach what I've heard on the radio. "Staring At The Sun" is third-rate Oasis, and just who in the bleeding blarney needs that? Maybe I'll pick it up cheap and be pleasantly surprised, but I doubt it - I expect about as much pleasure out of the latest U2 as I do from the latest Rolling Stones.

Post Your Comments

Reader Comments

Denis Wong, deniswo@total.net

NONONONO!!!! Everything before Achtung Baby sounds dated today. True, there's nothing innovative with Achtung Baby and Zooropa but those are the albums which U2 perfected the art of pop songwriting. All they did was trade the banners for some sound effects. Of course, POP sucks!

Also, listen to IT'S BEGINNING TO AND BACK AGAIN from Wire and you'll agree with me that Wire did do some interesting stuff after the punk days. I predict that this Wire phase (mid to late eighties) will be re-evaluated by the rock audience and critics very soon

ps: Warehouse is Husker Du's EXILE ON MAINSTREET. A lot of great songs packed in. Candy overkill. Punk as old farts. One of my favorites.

Interesting reviews.

Nick Karn, Awake600@aol.com

Well, I only have 4 albums from this band so far, and I've got to say some of these songs have greatly impressed me, while others sound awfully forgettable and uninspiring.

Bono is definitely a great poet (although sometimes repetitive) and has a powerful (if sometimes overdone) vocal style. Edge is of course an interesting and innovative guitarist, and the rhythm section is solid. No question about the band's ability for chemistry. Whether they are truly capable of writing a completely consistent set of songs is up to debate.

War (****) is a great politically charged album which has some amazing and emotional highlights ("New Years Day", "Like A Song", "40", "The Refugee") but gets very weak with a couple of filler tunes in the second half ("Red Light", "Surrender"). The Unforgettable Fire (***-1/2 is incredibly frustrating as a whole, as these songs literally are split between brilliant ("Bad", "Pride", the title cut, "A Sort Of Homecoming") and absolutely forgettable ("Elvis Presley and America", "Indian Summer Sky", "Promenade").

The Joshua Tree (****-1/2) is definitely their best from what I've heard, with of course the first 4 tracks being excellent and powerful smash hits, and a few underrated non-hits in "Red Hill Mining Town", "Exit" and "Mothers Of The Disappeared". Only a couple of uninspiring tracks keep this one from 5 star status.

Finally, Pop (***-1/2) is their only 90s "electronica" album I own and I'm not sure I want to get anymore cause the stuff I've heard from "Achtung Baby" I really don't care for and I've read nothing but scathing reviews for "Zooropa". Anyway, this album has quite a few songs that actually work in this setting ("Mofo", "If God Will Send His Angels", "Last Night On Earth" and even the cheesy "Discotheque") but it's kind of hard to get into as a whole and makes me yearn for the glorious old days a whole lot.

Geoff McKeown, gpm@sys.uea.ac.uk

If you listen to POP, you would find a rather boring album of poor quality Techno, which none-the-less has a few surprise songs; the moving "If God Will Send His Angels" is the standout track.

Dale Sparks, sparky@boutiquewinesaz.com

U2 is another example of how even great bands hit that barrier in 1990 when everything started sounding like crap. U2 might be the perfect example of how great the 1980's were with four classic albums Boy (*****), October (****), War (*****), Joshua Tree (*****). They were also a perfect example of how musically pathetic the 1990's were with Pop, Achtung, and Zooropa, none of which contain even a (***) song.