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Class ?

Main Category: Arena Rock
Also applicable: Pop Rock, Art Rock, Electronica
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a U2 fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective U2 fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1980
Overall rating = 12

Curious mix of styles and a great groovy spacey sound... but the band hasn't really arrived yet.

Best song: TWILIGHT

Track listing: 1) I Will Follow; 2) Twilight; 3) An Cat Dubh; 4) Into The Heart; 5) Out Of Control; 6) Stories For Boys; 7) The Ocean; 8) A Day Without Me; 9) Another Time Another Place; 10) The Electric Co.; 11) Shadows And Tall Trees.

U2's debut album is one of those records that you listen to in one sitting, completely baffled - and drawn in - by the sound, then get the urge to put on for a second time, and then the main reaction is: "Uh? Excuse me, did you actually say something?" Oh no, it's not bad. Far from it. On the contrary, it cooks! It should be owned by everybody! But don't think that this will be an 'easy' or a 'difficult' listen. It will be a 'puzzling' listen.

So what's the deal? Four young Irish lads get together, get a recording contract, put out some uneven singles and then employ all their talents to make a sweeping, bombastic statement on their very first LP. The actual music on here practically determines the term 'derivative': almost every song suggests an influence or two, and if I wanted to count all of them, I'd run out of fingers pretty quickly. As Wilson & Alroy pointed out, The Edge's guitar-playing style was heavily influenced by Dave Gilmour's playing on songs like 'Run Like Hell', although that is certainly not the only 'root' on here. The melodies, however, are mostly reminiscent of latter day David Bowie; it's obvious that the band was really soaking in the guy's Berlin trilogy. And, of course, let us not forget punk (everything from the Sex Pistols to Patti Smith). And, of course, let us not forget New Wave (everything from the Police to the Talking Heads)! And that's all on here. See, U2 didn't invent anything new - they were powerful combinators, and in a certain way this album just sums up the entire second half of the Seventies. Which makes U2 the perfect candidate for 'The Guys That Closed The Silver Age of Rock'.

That said, there's nothing particularly wrong with 'powerful combinations', and I dig this record just like anybody else - in fact, there ain't a single true duffer among the eleven tracks presented here. The guys really make their sound huge, unlike most young bands that came before them; displaying a passionate affection for echoes, multi-tracked guitars, a crashing drum sound and loud, energetic harmonies, they really run the risk of being dismissed for callous pretentiousness. Ah, but fortunately, this pretentiousness is fully justified by their control of melody and a deep understanding of the 'hook' conception.

The most serious accusation, in fact, is not the band's derivativeness (which can be overlooked if you try hard), but the fact that "it all sounds the same, daddy". Not only does it all sound the same, much too often, there aren't even any breaks between songs. Now what's up with that? Is this supposed to be a concept album? Oh yeah, well, some tracks do deal with the problems of childhood ('Into The Heart') and motherhood ('I Will Follow'), but for the most part, Bono's lyrics are rather vague and intentionally disfocused - and you'll hardly be able to concentrate on them anyway. And what with everything sounding the same, it's really hard to make out the hooks at times. Make sure you give the record at least four or five listens before making the final judgement!

What was that best song over there? 'Twilight'? Well, you see, I just wrote that up and I'm already not too sure. 'Twilight' is certainly a great atmospheric track, opening with one of those shakey Edge riffs and one of those grim Adam Clayton basslines that can identify any song as 'U2' in a matter of seconds, and it certainly possesses a gorgeous chorus, plenty of rip-roaring energy and everything else you need, but is it right to give the title of best song to something that could also be characterized as 'Iggy Pop sings David Bowie, with a little help from the outside Irish population?' Perhaps not. Then again, perhaps yes.

Then again, it's not really that better, guitar solos and all, than 'I Will Follow', which is so goshdarn bouncy and memorable and ringing' and twingin' and optimistic that it just gotta rank as one of the Eighties' most perfect candidates for a single. And what about 'An Cat Dubh'? Darker and more mysterious, yes, with a slightly slower dynamic groove, groovy vocal harmonies, catchy chorus, and a bizarre 12 a.m. atmosphere. Or maybe 'Out Of Control', the band's most aggressive, openly punkish signature? Or something else?

If you thought that paragraph above was just a special way to lull you into my description of all the tracks on here, you were wrong - I couldn't do that without too much self-repetition. They're all the same song stylistically, and I couldn't describe the true differences in hooks. I just mentioned the first half of the album because, well, I had to mention something. The second half sounds the same, but in a different way. Got it? Or I could describe it in influence terms, like "'A Day Without Me' sounds like the Police with the reggae bit replaced by a David Bowie/Brian Eno-style monotonous rhythmic shuffle". Or maybe not.

Whatever. I like everything on here, and any one selected song - pick any one you like - could really drive me to ecstasy. (Personally, I just happened to select 'Twilight'. Make your bets, ladies and gentlemen!). Great soaring atmosphere! Youthful optimism! Letters from your subconscious! Wonderful mastery of studio trickery! Great hooks! But you see, a little more diversity couldn't hurt. Yeah, yeah, I know, U2 have got some nasty problems in that direction, but alas, I cannot really forgive that flaw. Plus, I still don't really get what was the exact purpose of this record, apart from going into the studio and proving that they were masters, of course. No, it's not a crime, but it's kinda frustrating.



Year Of Release: 1981
Overall rating = 11

Putting religion into your songs actually CAN produce emotional highs. Who'd-a thunk that?

Best song: REJOICE

Track listing: 1) Gloria; 2) I Fall Down; 3) I Threw A Brick Through A Window; 4) Rejoice; 5) Fire; 6) Tomorrow; 7) October; 8) With A Shout; 9) Stranger In A Strange Land; 10) Scarlet; 11) Is That All?

Well okay. I fully get the exact purpose of this record. It's explicitly stated with the opening number 'Gloria' and it's carried over throughout the entire album. And that purpose is to produce a vast overwhelming overriding mammoth-like statement of unsurpassed emotional power. Yeah! This is what they need the huge mind blowing production style for! Suddenly, the echoey omnipresent guitars and the thumping end-of-the-world drums and the screeching hysterical vocals all start making perfect sense. Too bad the melodies have kinda gone for shit - if you can memorize any of these songs upon the first three listens, you can probably beat The Rainman - but I really don't even notice that. I'm just so absorbed by the POWER.

It's not exactly a "Christian" album or anything, but the religious thematics crops up everywhere on the record (just look at the song titles: 'Gloria', 'Rejoice', 'With A Shout (Jerusalem)'!) and is actually implemented without any obvious lapses of taste. In the general critical opinion, October hasn't really gone down as a classic, being often considered a rather weak and rushed follow-up to the Boy masterpiece, but in my personal humble opinion, October certainly beats Boy in the field of dynamics and tension, even if it loses to Boy in melody terms - which is why it's rated one point lower, but that's quite arbitrary, really. The basic elements of the U2 sound are still in place, of course, but they're pushed up to the brink of bursting. And that's a good thing, under the condition that you actually enjoy the production of the album: even bigger and huger than on Boy. In the sense that the Edge plays one note on his guitar and it sounds like he's playing The Universal Chord, with echo all over the world and feedback that never seems to be totally gotten under control. There's also multiple majestic keyboard overlays, backing vocals a-plenty, and even the good old drummer boy constantly chirps in with mad mad mad fills that would do justice to Motorhead. And Bono? Sheesh.

That said, it's not like I'm gonna pretend there are no melodic classics on here, just overdriven instrumentation. At least two of the songs gotta rank along U2's best stuff. Well, one always does: 'Gloria' (that's Gloria Dei, ladies and gentlemen, not Van Morrison's Gloria, in case you never knew) builds up upon a complex and cleverly constructed riff, and damn is it ever a terrific buildup. The funny thing is, when you look at the lyrics sheet you find rather trivial religious imagery - 'but only in you I'm complete', eh Bono? - but when you do not look at the lyrics sheet what you find is a band using post-punkish instrumentation and powerful rock bass lines with the purpose of conveying a religious attitude, and then the lyrics don't really bother you any more.

The second classic - unrecognized publically, but my personal favourite nevertheless - is 'Rejoice'. It builds up upon... a complex and cleverly constructed riff, I guess, but an even more impressive one. God bless you and your guitar tone, Mr Edge, I've yet to hear a better implementation of it. And while this time around the lyrics are about the Second Coming, no less, who cares? These are minor chords, and the funny thing is that the actual music is depressing as hell - and then you get Bono screaming 'rejoice' at the top of his lungs, with wave upon wave of careering Bono vocal magically transforming into the wail of the Edge's guitar and back. So how can you actually 'rejoice' when the song is scary as shit? Heh heh.

Most of the other songs sound just like 'Gloria' and 'Rejoice', only they don't have memorable riffs. Maybe Steve Lillywhite gave these songs a bit more echo than necessary, but you see, the echo on these classic early U2 albums plays approximately the same function as the gritty feedback on classic Who tracks: it obscures the melody for sure, but it gives the melody so much extra power and force that it's totally forgivable. What, would we want to take this band's idiosyncrasy away from them? Never in my sweet short life; I'll enjoy mighty songs like 'Fire' and 'Jerusalem' just the way they are, thank you very much. I mean, is it cheesy the way Bono wails 'Jerusalem! Jerusalem!' in the latter? Maybe it is, but the way it's pulled off is immaculate. Not to mention that it's only once in a million years that you get a screaming guy who can scream 'Jerusalem! Jerusalem!' without the vomit-inducing reflex activating itself. (Yeah, I'm kinda looking at you, Mr Greg Lake... oh wait, you just buried your voice in the mix back then. Well never mind).

There's also the beautiful Irish-instrument-enhanced ballad 'Tomorrow' which has... guess what? A build-up! A beautiful build-up, from Bono's nearly accappella gorgeous singing, only propped by a minimalistic bassline and these cute bagpipes in the background, to an all-out rockin' second half. Is it about the Second Coming too? I guess so. Now see, generic Christian imagery and exciting, rousing rock music can actually co-exist peacefully hand in hand. What? What's that you say? No, I was not talking Grand Funk Railroad there! Nor did I talk Bob Dylan's Saved piece of trash.

True, there are some songs here that do less for me - such as the title track, whose relaxed, lazy piano melody could be taken as a suitable distraction from the incessant pounding of the band, but not much more. Yet even the "filler" material like 'I Threw A Brick From The Window' or the closing 'Is That All?' are all based on that same style and are hardly any less powerful than the major tracks on here. I mean, just about every song on this album manages to infuse me somehow with its energy and vigour. What a far cry from the U2 of Pop, eh?



Year Of Release: 1983
Overall rating = 11

Getting, uh, kinda down-to-earth. This works in both sides.


Track listing: 1) Sunday Bloody Sunday; 2) Seconds; 3) New Year's Day; 4) Like A Song; 5) Drowning Man; 6) The Refugee; 7) Two Hearts Beat As One; 8) Red Light; 9) Surrender; 10) 40.

Okay, time to flash some ugly personality here - I am not going to rate this album higher than the one that came before it, in fact, for the first few listens I was so underwhelmed I was going to rate it lower, but luckily the common sense prevailed in the end. Fuck you, common sense, anyway. War was the last album where U2 collaborated with Steve Lillywhite, but it still sounds like it was recorded in an absolutely different world. The fifth-dimension-kinda-sound of Boy and October is gone, evaporated, vanished into thin air - basta. The Edge drops his mind-boggling echoey playing style on here; no more angel-disturbing apocalyptic 'Rejoice' style riffing on here, and while his guitar still keeps on ringing, it does that in a much more straightforward, and uninteresting, manner. And not even the moody, deep-set pianos or thunderous basslines can compensate for that. Nosiree.

Another thing: the usual lack of respect for solidly constructed memory kinda reaches its climax. Even the best songs, like 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' and 'New Year's Day', are thoroughly unhummable unless you've listened to each one a couple dozen times, and I'm not even mentioning the lesser ones. How come nobody ever mentions there ain't a single interesting guitar riff on the entire record? Sure, there's plenty of excellent Edge guitarwork, but it's like they completely fucked up the concept of carefully structured musical phrasing on here. Just about every song is a sonic mess, and while this was to a large extent true about the preceding albums as well, at least Boy and October had fascinating, innovative sonic messes.

So in the very end, what does War achieve its artistic success on? Power. This is easily the most powerful U2 album so far, and this is certainly due to the fact that Bono and the guys have invested their mammoth energy into something more accessible and realistic this time, namely, the World and its problems. This is the start of U2 The Pretentious Prophets as everyone knows them today, and while it was a far more risky business to grapple the wand of the Pretentious Prophet in the post-modernistic, sarcastic Eighties than it was in the naive idealistic good-natured Sixties, U2 just basically had the balls to do this. And this is also where Bono finally becomes the real number one guy in the band; with the Edge consciously, or subconsciously, putting down his classic style, it's up to the good old reliable Bonovox to pull out the songs with his, er, 'unforgettable fire'.

I needn't really put a lot of effort into describing the charms of 'Sunday Bloody Sunday', the biggest song from the album in everybody and his grandma's minds. It's kinda funny to realize that behind the aggressive, fiery delivery of the song (the thumping drums alone are worth a fortune) lies a call for ceasefire - 'but I won't heed the battle call, it puts my back up against the wall'. Not to mention all the actuality of the line 'how long, how long must we sing this song?' Uhm, how's about a couple more million years, Bono? Give those silly humans some time to die out.

The other big highlight of the album, 'New Year's Day', is also very typical of the record's style - next to no memorable melody, but it simply crushes the listener with its weight. This is how you can be heavy without actually being heavy: a thick, uncrunchable bassline, a distorted chuggin' riff that's actually hidden by the production (if you dig it out and put it at the head of the mix, you'll get yourself more crunch than Judas Priest, but this is just what those guys do not need), acute, dazzlingly ringing guitar lines that come in and come out with a little bit of echo at the end that kinda remains of all the October trickery, moody echoey piano which seems to be revved up twice and thrice in the production, and of course this little overblown guy with the little overblown voice: 'all is quiet on New Year's day, a world in white gets underway...'.

And so it all comes down to how powerful the overall drive is. Ooh, that drive. I don't even remember when was the last time I reviewed an album by a band that'd get by exclusively through drive alone... musta been something by Humble Pie. Or Motorhead. Not that I'm comparing, mr potential dumbflamehead. I'm not. I'm just saying that 'Two Hearts Beat As One' is an absolute mastodont as well, with Bono screaming 'I can't stop the dance! Maybe this is my last chance!' at the end being one of the album's most climactic moments. But it's just that the other songs aren't nearly exactly as mastodontic, and eventually lose out in the competition. I wish I could say something special about 'Like A Song' or 'Red Light' or 'Surrender', but I can't. If you've heard two or three best songs on this album, you've pretty much heard it all. It can be slower or faster, it can have more or less overdubs, but that's about it.

Oh wait, 'Drowning Man' is mostly acoustic-based and features intense violin throughout. It's one of the album's weakest numbers, though, and that pretty much sums it: at this particular point, if these guys aren't really knocking your teeth out with all their force, they just don't cut it. So get some of those funny jaw protectors out, put this in your player and don't forget to crank the volume up to the highest level. After all, isn't that wimpy Irish guy a spokesman for God or something? Oh, sorry, got him kinda confused with Mark Fartner from GFR. That's the downside of listening to too much music.



Year Of Release: 1983
Overall rating = 10

Bono goes "public". This is his Mountain Sermon if he ever had one.

Best song: GLORIA

Track listing: 1) Gloria; 2) 11 O'Clock Tick Tock; 3) I Will Follow; 4) Party Girl; 5) Sunday Bloody Sunday; 6) The Electric Co.; 7) New Year's Day; 8) "40".

The difference between Bono live and Bono in the studio is not about Bono live singing "directly to the people" and Bono in the studio singing strictly into the microphone. In fact, if you ask me, Bono always sings directly to the people, even if there's no people around. That's the price one pays for being a Bono. Well, on second thought, I can't exactly guarantee you the shower, but studio recordings... heck, you can easily hear it yourself. No; the true difference between Bono live and Bono in the studio is about Bono live having the people sing directly to him.

Which is not so trite a statement as it might seem originally. These days, audience participation is a normal, almost obligatory phenomenon; in the early Eighties, it was anything but. (Check out the difference between a typical mid-Seventies and late Eighties Paul McCartney live show, for instance). Besides, U2 don't seem to vary their style much when they step onstage, and yet they've always been hailed as one of the prime live attractions of the entire Eighties scene. Why so? Energy and professionalism are certainly not enough - tons of bands were just as energetic, and as cool as the Edge is with his instrument, he ain't any cooler than Robert Smith, for instance.

No, the thing is that U2 are bonding. They're truly trying to make themselves one with the audience (or, at least, used to try before the inevitable wave of commercial success stadium-ized their performances and forced them to somewhat lose the true touch), and thus it's hardly coincidental that the only true complaint you can hurl at this album's sound quality is the audience's being way too high in the mix. It's supposed to be that way. The Edge is playing his guitar loud and chaotic; the audience is loud and chaotic. 'Say YEAH!' bellows Bono. 'YEAH!' bellows the audience. Bono is happy. The audiences are happy. Everybody's gonna be happy. Shiny happy people. Happiness is a warm gun.

Even the surly reviewer is happy, although I normally don't like audience participation - especially since its becoming regular part of today's live shows. "Well, you've been nice tolerant little lambs, now here's your little piece of sugar - sing along with me! I'm the star here, but I'm so generous as to give you your own five minutes of glory." Pretty cheap, if you ask me. But somehow, with U2 it doesn't seem to be that way. There's no clear distinction between "this is my part" and "this is your part". The entire concert is just one huge mass celebration - Bono just happens to be The Supreme Shaman leading everyone in an ecstatic dance round the sacrificial fire. Speaking of 'mass', here's another "non-coincidence" question for you: why does the album begin with 'Gloria'? Simple - what other U2 song forms so perfect an introduction for this huge quasi-religious mass feast o' the spirit?

The songs don't vary much in tone, mood, or tempo (this is U2, after all), but then again, neither does your average mass in your average Catholic church. The setlist mostly consists of huge, anthemic songs (not that it's all that easy to find a non-huge, non-anthemic number in this band's catalog), hits like 'I Will Follow' and 'New Year's Day', but some surprises are allowed. Thus, '11 O'Clock Tick Tock' was something like a very early, pre-Boy single, although not at all different from the average uptempo Boy rocker; and 'Party Girl' is the album's sole "breather", when the band takes a break from the incessant wild pumping and allows Bono to get a little bit more sentimental as he sings about the fates of 'a girl named Party'. Not even 'Party Girl' is free from a little audience participation, though. Both songs are relatively standard U2 fare, but I really can't speak in terms of highlights here. The entire album, for me, is like one big 'Gloria' from top to bottom.

Throughout the album, Bono doesn't indulge in as much banter as he does on Rattle And Hum, which is certainly a good thing - just enough to introduce the band members, as on 'Gloria', or to make some short, concise point ('this song is not a rebel song, this song is Sunday Bloody Sunday!'). The Edge, however, is the main hero, as he's gotta have enough balls to cover up all the overdubbing and all the production gloss on the band's Lillywhite-produced records - and he does his best, at times rock-n-rollifying the proceedings, but never so as to transform everything into generic boogie or something like that. For 'New Year's Day', he occasionally switches to piano, and it's fun to notice how swiftly and smoothly he can go from playing that pretty piano theme to jarring guitar soloing and back again, especially given that the song is somewhat sped up in concert.

Thus, when they get to "40" which concludes the proceedings with the "audience-swaying" tempo (and probably quite a few lighters out), it feels like such a natural summing up of the proceedings that I can't help but give in. The listeners get such a violent, ravaging treatment with the previous numbers that this gentle soothing is all but necessary, and apparently the listeners agree, because they still continue swaying even when the song itself is over. Which naturally extends the album's length by an extra minute - quite a treat considering how short it actually is. In fact, this is probably Under A Blood Red Sky's main shortcoming: it's over much too quickly. Even in its original form it was qualified as a 'mini-LP'; today, in the CD age, it's kinda weird to see it sold as a separate entity, when it can easily be tacked on to War as a set of bonuses. (Say! That's the form I have it in! Say! I'm a criminal!).

All of the above shouldn't be taken as one huge "buy buy buy buy this" recommendation. Under A Blood Red Sky is too short, and the songs are too similar to their studio counterparts, and Bono can get annoying, and the audience is too loud, and goddamn these Irish and their problems, and let's all vote conservative and respect the PMRC, and before I get carried away, let me just tell you that U2 were (are? that's debatable) a super-fuckin'-cool live band and this album proves it, despite all of its limitations.



Year Of Release: 1984
Overall rating = 12

I know what they needed Lanois and Eno for. To make Bono sound even louder.

Best song: PRIDE

Track listing: 1) A Sort Of Homecoming; 2) Pride; 3) Wire; 4) The Unforgettable Fire; 5) Promenade; 6) 4th Of July; 7) Bad; 8) Indian Summer Sky; 9) Elvis Presley And America; 10) MLK.

That's a mighty impressive castle out there, isn't it? Slane Castle in Meath, Ireland, to be precise. And that ain't no hollow promo shot, either: they really recorded all this stuff down at that place. Whether it's truly responsible for giving the album its echoey ring is not up to me to know; but I suppose that the primary aim of relocating to this kind of place for the sessions was to find the adequate inspiration. It's all big in here. The sky is big. The earth is big. The castle is big. The sound is big. And Bono Vox is big. (In the figurative sense, that is).

One thing the Steve Lillywhite production often lacked, most particularly on the previous studio album: clarity. You always got the impression that something grandiose, more-than-three-dimensional was cooking inside every given U2 track, but even so it still seemed like you, the listener, were on top of the lake and the band was at the bottom. It was a curious feeling, not devoid of its own charm; but is that really appropriate for U2, a band that thrives upon direct connection with the listener? Not really appropriate. They needed somebody to help them emerge from the goddamn lake, and those somebodies happened to be Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, ambient pioneers and all-around nice guys (at least, given the amount of time they actually spent on these Irish losers).

Actually, Bono did threaten the public that on their next album, they were gonna "go ambient" - probably making quite a few people shiver and shudder, remembering that first time they put on Music For Airports and realized that Brian Eno, Pop Genius De Luxe, was gone forever. But U2 were never "pop geniuses" in the first place, and besides, for a band like that to release a truly "ambient" album is even less possible than it is for Pat Boone to release a bunch of heavy metal covers. (Hey wait a minute... oh well, I'm too lazy to rewrite that one). U2's music may not be too catchy or diverse, but it just can't live without dynamics. These guys aren't likely to sit on their asses and indulge in meditation, they're moving, and they get you to move as well.

No, indeed, by saying "ambient", Bono hardly meant much more than implying that The Unforgettable Fire would get the regular Eno treatment - which it got. The band now boosts additional layers of keyboards and sparse sound effects, many of which are indeed beautiful in an Eno-only way (check out the electronic whoos and whees on the title track to see what I mean). Yet above all is one thing for which I am most grateful: never yet had the bare band sounded so perfectly gelled. There is not a single instrumental or vocal hook on 'Wire', but it doesn't truly matter: what matters is the unstoppable jamming power of this beast, with every player, even the unlucky drummer guy, trying to healthily outcompete the opponents in a Who-like way. The Edge still comes out the winner, with his fabulous scraping technique now clearer and awesomer than before, but Bono doesn't exactly lag behind, rattling the castle walls with his prolonged screaming, and Clayton's basslines were never yet so perfectly discernible in all their funkiness. By the time Bono gets to the frenzied 'countdown' at the end of the song, you've either been whipped into complete action or else U2 is just not the band for you.

However, the keyword is "loud", gentlemen. This album, if nothing else, should be played louder than everything else. I didn't quite realize that and practically failed to notice it at all upon first listen. Then, however, you crank up the amps and whoosh! suddenly it's all happening. I'm ready to accept as a fact that these songs aren't really "well written"; maybe that's also comprised in the term 'ambient'. I'm even ready to accept that all of them were designed exclusively as vehicles for Bono's ever-growing need to express himself on Issues. But I'm certainly not ready to accept that this is not excellent music, and I'm even less ready to accept that they're just dicking around with their instruments, doing a big puffed-up nothing.

Well, okay, sometimes they are. 'Elvis Presley & America' is a major disappointment. Lyrically, it reminds me of those early Dylan streams-of-consciousness, written under the influence of beatniks far more experienced than Dylan himself - except that at least Dylan's verses could always be defended on the grounds of self-irony, whereas "Bono" and "irony" is a well-known pair of antonyms. And by some unhappy chance (Brian, where were you?), this longest and most uninteresting piece of paperwaste turns out to be married to the blandest piece of musical backing on the record - six and a half minutes of quiet droning, neither powerful nor even clearly played, not helped even by Larry Jr.'s desperate attempts to embellish the song with some ass-kicking drumming. Yes, this track is perhaps the most ambient on the record. Thank God the rest is not.

The single - aka "the catchiest song" - on here was 'Pride', an unveiled anthem to Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King, Jr. at the same time. 'Catchiest' doesn't mean a hell of a lot here: not more, at least, than there's a clearly distinguishable chorus. Bono, of course, is that rare kind of singer that can scream 'IN THE NAME OF LOVE!' at the top of his lungs and still have his reputation intact; but once again, the true hero here is The Edge, as this is his cleanest, brightest, sharpest performance on the record. However, the song's length and format do not give it a chance to develop, which leaves the magnum opus spot of the album open for 'Bad', an anti-drug song that somehow manages to turn something distinctly personal and intimate into a huge singalong anthem. No hooks again, in the traditional sense, but you have to trust in Bono, and then you might find that both the subtle falsetto 'ooh-ooh's at the beginning of the song and the all-out screaming of 'WIDE AWAKE!' at its end work well as replacements. Judge this in terms of performance, not in terms of chord sequences.

Again, it's funny that for an album dubbed "ambient" by some of his creators it is mostly an album that ROCKS. 'A Sort Of Homecoming?' Rocks. Title track? Rocks. 'Bad'. Rocks - in the end, at least. 'Pride'? 'Wire'? Rock like a pair of black rhinos in heat. Only somewhere in the middle we find ourselves stuck with two truly 'atmospheric' compositions: 'Promenade' is sort of a light folksy ballad with a weird time signature, and '4th Of July' is an instrumental that wouldn't be out of place on a contemporary Eno album indeed. It's "obnoxiously" cut off at the two minute mark, though, where Eno would probably fill up a whole side with it. And then there's 'MLK', of course, the beautiful synth-and-Bono-only "lullaby" to wind down the proceedings. (Very ironic indeed, after the pathetically lethargic 'Elvis Presley & America', to find yourself actually awakened by eerie deep dark machine sounds and this guy's creepy invocation: 'sleep, sleep tonight/and may your dreams be realized...').

Some people like to draw a strict line between U2's Lillywhite period and the Lanois/Eno one, which is understood; but in reality, the transition from War to Fire is actually quite smooth. After all, as far as well-written melodies went, War only boasted a couple or so of these, and even though there's nothing as solidly memorable on Fire as 'New Year's Day', in terms of consistency the two records run almost neck to neck, with the exception of that wretched 'Elvis' song. However, in terms of sound Fire is just so much better. And I don't just mean "cleaner": I mean that, as with most examples of Eno production, you can spend days on end trying to figure out all the tasty instrumental bits in these arrangements, trying to get to the bottom of this well. A true joy for the ear - and I'm almost certain that Robert Smith must have paid serious attention to this album in order to devise his playing and arranging style for all those magnificent late Eighties Cure records.

After The Unforgettable Fire, U2 sort of laid low for the following two years, except for some touring, the infamous Live Aid performance, and a short four-song EP called Wide Awake In America and featuring live performances of 'Bad' and 'A Sort Of Homecoming' as well as two studio outtakes, out of which 'Three Sunrises', with its funny rockabilly rhythm guitar, poppy vocal harmonies, and growling "experimental" guitar solo, is quite recommendable, but the diet-anthemic 'Love Comes Tumbling' is not much so - maybe because the latter, unlike the former, was not produced by the Eno/Lanois team. In any case, I'm certainly not giving this EP a separate review, despite its occasional availability as a full-priced CD (!! - you'd better hope all the revenue from that one go to settle the third world debt, Bono), so you'll just have to decide on your own.



Year Of Release: 1987
Overall rating = 11

Personally, I prefer Bono the rocker to Bono the priest. But then it's hard to tell one from the other.


Track listing: 1) Where The Streets Have No Name; 2) I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For; 3) With Or Without You; 4) Bullet The Blue Sky; 5) Running To Stand Still; 6) Red Hill Mining Town; 7) In God's Country; 8) Trip Through Your Wires; 9) One Tree Hill; 10) Exit; 11) Mothers Of The Disappeared.

Explaining the huge critical and commercial success of The Joshua Tree doesn't seem like a tremendously hard task to me (I'd have a much harder time trying to solve the phenomenon of Rumours, for that matter), but it's still an interesting one. First and foremost, I suppose it reflects the utterly sorrowful state of mainstream music industry. Sure, U2 were on a major label and were heavily promoted (as well as heavily promot-ing themselves through the charity thing and suchlike), but the main thing is that they were, like, one of the three or four traditionally-oriented guitar-based bands relying on some kind of spontaneity and sincerity that was still in action. In other words, you didn't have much to choose from. It was either U2 or Poison. In a way, sending The Joshua Tree up the charts was just a mark of desperation - coming from people who wanted some old-timey rock'n'roll still true to its former idealistic values.

This, however, does not explain the album's lasting popularity, and here's where the second factor comes in: The Joshua Tree is the single most powerful ever confession of "love for America" from the mouth of a non-American (in rock music, of course). In a perfectly adequate way, too: nothing sarcastic, nothing ironic, nothing lightweight, and, on the other hand, nothing self-consciously "patriotic" or coloured in stars and stripes. Bono's lyrics evade straightforwardness at any cost; in fact, his idea of "love for America" is similar rather to the mixed feelings of early religious immigrants to the country than to any modern time sentiments. The Joshua Tree appeals to the old times rather than the age of Reagan, which is why I find myself as delighted by its spirit as I find myself annoyed by the spirit of Born In The USA, for instance. Its main theme is hope in the face of whatever odds, and if that hope - at any juncture, in any degree - happens to be symbolized by them old United States, well, so be it! I'll vouch for hope whenever I find it, me.

So why then do I rate this album lower than The Unforgettable Fire - a record far less deep lyrically, moreover, a record whose sloppy, straightforward lyrics occasionally overshadow the rudimentary music ('Elvis Presley And America')? To be honest, because I find myself bored with it. The lyrical and socio-philosophical maturation, the way I see it, had come at a terrible expense to these guys. They are still working with the same Eno-Lanois production team, and they had no membership changes, yet The Joshua Tree really sounds nothing like its predecessor if you omit the predictable similarities. The "ambience" is gaining on them, making synthesizer backgrounds, lax, perfunctory guitar rhythms, and atmosphere in general dominate over the melodic content... wait a minute, "melodic content" is not the expression one usually associates with the band. Let me try and rephrase that.

The thing is, The Joshua Tree doesn't rock out too much. Yes, it's still a live band with live guitars and rhythm sections, yes, the overreliance on electronics wouldn't arrive until the next decade. But already the songs look a bit like artificial creations to me. Not a single track displays the kind of gripping, mesmerizing chemistry you witnessed between the band members on tracks like 'Pride' or 'Wire', not to mention early, "raw"-era U2. Not a single track really lets loose - perhaps Bono's self-importance wouldn't already let him allow any of that. And while I don't mind the bombast and pretentiousness (one of the trademarks of U2's very existence), I sure wish they'd spice up the second half of the album with at least a modicum of hooks and diversity. The only elements of diversity that I do manage to locate are occasional borrowings from the American music tradition itself: a bunch of country influences on tracks like 'Running To Stand Still' or 'Trip Through Your Wires'. That ain't enough.

Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to assemble all the Mammoth-class compositions at the beginning of the record. All of the album's hit singles and radio standards are right there at the top, making it reasonably harder to save your attention for a lot more songs that all sound like inferior takes on the musical/lyrical matter of the first big bunch. Once you've heard 'When The Streets Have No Name', don't expect any huge surprises. In fact, that song wasn't a surprise either, provided you've been following the band since at least their previous record, but in either case it lays out the direction clearer and brighter than Janet Jackson lays out her tits. A massive ambient introduction; Eno must be lurking somewhere nearby. The Edge enters with delayed chops (say, doesn't "delayed chops" sound like something out of a restaurant jargon to you?), playing something effective, simple, and well-known. The rhythm section kicks in as bluntly as possible. And then there's the vocal delivery that will have you murmuring 'where the streets have no name, where the streets have no name' for weeks even if you have a very vague idea of whatever it is these lines should be attached to. But on the other hand, you will feel uplifted, rejuvenated, detoxicated, and ready to join the search for eternal happiness. 'High on a desert plain' - that's where they're standing on the album cover, see. Don't you just wish you were a Mormon seeker these days, following your own row of Joshua trees to find something better than the eternal stinkfest of today? Too bad all the desert plains are already counted out and categorized.

It's not the best song on the album, anyway. Somewhat better is 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For', a little slower, a little more gospel-ish, a little more interesting both in terms of guitar melody (more than one chord!) and Bono's vocal delivery (a memorable verse structure all the way through, what a God-sent rarity!), although the message is still the same. You see, the title might be misleading: it isn't a song of desperation. So what if he still hasn't found what he was looking for? Believe you me, he's still looking for it. In fact, I'm secretly hoping that he might never find the 'it' in question, because once the 'it' has been found, who's gonna keep on buying U2 records? Not me, for sure.

'With Or Without You' - hmm, that tune might be even more juicy from a purely musical point. The bassline is strikingly Ramones-like in its simplicity, but it's the most audible one on record, and it gives the song an immediacy and sharpness unseen on any other U2 ballad. The piano and "whistling" synthesizer patterns give it a unique flavor, and then there's the subtle inflection in Bono's voice when he sort of "conjugates" the 'with or without you' chorus in so many different ways. It gets the band close to adult contemporary territory, but so what? As long as they don't take this for an excuse to wallow around in synthesizer muck and spew forth banalities, who gives...?

And yet I have always preferred the angrier side of U2 to their sissier side. So maybe 'Bullet The Blue Sky' wasn't such a big hit (I don't think it was even released as a single, since its decidedly dark and uncompromising nature wouldn't suggest a chart life of any serious duration anyway), but speaking in terms of full-scale, long-winged, overwhelming musical paintings of the Apocalypse, I don't think a song as hard-hitting as that had ever been done since at least the days of 'Gimme Shelter', and while U2 could never equal the Stones in terms of great composing or complexity and colourfulness of musical arrangements, at least they have the benefit of newer technologies and production innovations. They can make everything look big without making themselves look foolish, and with a couple repetitive hooks, the Edge's capacity for wreaking art-punkish havoc, and Daniel Lanois' ability to deepen the sound, they can make a superficially simplistic, forgettable tune into a marvelous sonic attack. As an added bonus comes Bono's theatrical preacher man delivery ('see the FLAAAAMES getting higher!' he growls in a mock-Satanic tone) - and, of course, the ambivalent lyrics that seem to tackle America's "double" status: its potential to create a living nightmare on Earth and at the same time its status as that of the last asylum for all the oppressed (including those oppressed by America itself!). This kind of lyrical imagery we sure don't see from the Rolling Stones.

I could go on and add lengthy descriptions to the rest of the songs - I could waste lots of time explaining why I think they all represent a serious letdown and how come they have so little real power when compared to the opening bunch etc. etc., but I really don't wish to. All I find myself able to say is that the album plain fizzles down towards the end. Stuff like 'Exit' can never compete with 'Bullet The Blue Sky', sounding more like a second-hand tribute to Joy Division; and stuff like 'Mothers Of The Disappeared' shows that without a powerful, compact rhythm section, U2 melodies degenerate into feeble, simplistic mush. You can agree or disagree - I can at best describe the remaining seven songs as 'pleasant'. Granted, were I to grow up with this album, like so many Eighties' teenagers did, my nostalgia glands could have excreted a couple extra points for that rating. But I did not, and maybe my unbiased position does mean something as well. In the meantime, I will summarize my feelings as "consistent admiration mixed with occasional spiritual enlightenment", assign them a numeric equivalent of 11, bottle that resume up, bury it in my backyard, and go on looking for that something I still haven't found. Like the perfect U2 album, for instance.


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