Perception versus reality is always a fun way to break things down and help to understand something. However, sometimes things aren’t so cut and dry. For instance, in some cases, the perception of U2 is that they are still one of the biggest bands in the world. Yet the perception of U2 is also that they are not one of the biggest bands in the world anymore. The reality seems to fall in line closer with that perception yet there is also a reality where they’re still a big deal; maybe not as big of a deal as they once were but still bigger than most.
It’s confusing and I think because of that confusion as well as residual angst regarding the famous iPhone incident of 2014 and a general malaise about the band somewhat directly related to their subpar creative output over the past decade or so, it can seem as if no one really cares about U2 anymore. Or thinks about them or wants to think about them. It’s almost as if throwing shade at Bono and company is easier than admitting you’re a fan. Yet when one of their classic songs comes on the radio, it can still hit home, whether we want to admit it or not.
U2’s place in the modern world is unique for a band of their stature. We are only three years away from the band celebrating 50 years together, meaning they’ve been in the lives of several different generations for a long time. They’re classic rock but because of how they re-invented themselves a couple times along the way, they occupy different spaces of classic rock.
Early U2 belongs in one category, Joshua Tree U2 in another, the U2 of Achtung Baby in another, and for the most part, everything after 2001 in another. It’s one thing to live in a world with one U2 but we live in a world with several versions of U2, which should be fun because in pop culture we do seem to love our multi-verses but alas, that might not be the case. When it comes to both perception and reality, it certainly feels as if U2 has overstayed their welcome. We’re a lot more comfortable talking about them in the past tense than we are talking about them in the present.
And you know, that’s fine. Moving on is part of life and with that, the memories that we’ve made along the way with us. U2 just released a “new” album today, Songs of Surrender, a collection of tunes re-imagined by Bono and The Edge, and while sure, why not…also, why? But also, eh, ok. Ultimately, I don’t really care. I care a lot more about De La Soul’s catalog finally being available on Spotify than a new version of “Pride (In the Name of Love.)” Part of the reason for that is that with U2, I’ve kind of moved on, but I’ve done so with a collection of their songs that I’ll always love. I don’t really need any more, let alone “re-imagined” versions of those songs. And regardless of what happens with the band going forward, they’ll always be part of my life because of these twenty songs.
“Bullet the Blue Sky”
Ooooh, that drum beat. And then the guitar comes and the bass rumbles in and then the guitar comes in AGAIN. Bono’s vocals are fine but the music is the star on this track. It’s so atmospheric and dark and foreboding and ominous. It sounds like storm clouds gathering.
“When Love Comes To Town”
Rattle and Hum is such a fun album and you really can’t say that about many U2 albums. You know, because of the themes and such. But with B.B. King on guitar and vocals, this song has a delicious swagger to it. At the time, U2 was deep-diving into American rock history, and on this track, they well, found what they were looking for.
“In A Little While”
You don’t normally associate U2 songs with the idea of simplicity. How could you? Bono is always swinging for the fences with his lyrics and The Edge is a mad scientist cosplaying as a guitar player. But “In A Little While” is as beautifully simple and subsequently enjoyable as a lazy Sunday morning. I would love a U2 album full of songs like “In A Little While.” No tricks, no gimmicks. Just the four of them playing some easy-living, white dude R&B.
“Beautiful Day” will always be a great reminder that U2 was an amazing arena rock band. If the Rolling Stones elected to do a tour where they just played small venues, that’d be kind of fun. Same with the Foo Fighters. But no one wants to see U2 in a small room. Once U2 graduated to arenas and stadiums, there was no turning back and they so gladly embraced it with songs like “Beautiful Day.” Seeing U2 in a theater with two thousand of your closest friends would be cool but not ideal. It would almost be doing a disservice to the songs. “Beautiful Day” in a theater would be like skipping out on seeing a Christopher Nolan movie in the theater and waiting to watch it at home.
Yeah, everything I said about “Beautiful Day” is applicable here except “Elevation” sounds like it should be played in outer space for all the universe to hear.
“Angel of Harlem”
The horns on “Angel of Harlem” are time travelers and again, U2 are having fun and making fun music that sounds like fun. All the seriousness and pretentiousness, out the window, kid. We’re riding a driving Larry Mullin groove all the way to Flavortown. And God, those horns sound soooooo feckin’ good.
“Even Better Than The Real Thing”
The first twenty seconds of “Even Better Than The Real Thing” belong in a museum somewhere. I don’t know how you’d do it, I defer to the professionals but it deserves to be put on a pedestal and appreciated for generations to come.
I love how the verses swing and the chorus drives on this song, a tune that was originally recorded during The Joshua Tree sessions but revamped a decade later and released as part of a greatest hits package. “Sweetest Thing” has more going on than “In A Little While” but it could also fall into that simple category of U2 songs because at it’s core, it’s a pretty straightforward song anchored by a piano and Bono’s lyrics.
“Love And Peace Or Else”
When How To Dismantle An Atomic Bond came out in late 2004, I think it’s fair to say that my interest in U2 was starting to wain. The album was strong and I was certainly eager to check it out but it’s not as if it stopped time and took precedence over anything else. At that point, a new U2 album felt like something to explore whether you really wanted to or not. They had earned the right to pique your interest. And so yeah, I bought that album and listened to it but it didn’t make its mark on me until I got to the fourth song, “Love And Peace Or Else.” It’s dirtier than anything U2 had ever done up until that point. The low end of the song crept up from the trenches, still covered in filth and mud. Old Larry’s drums sound like a garage band’s drummer’s kit and the song has the kind of thumping along groove that someone like Queens Of The Stone Age would dirty up and make their own a few years later.
Apparently, U2 are working on a new record with loud guitars or something like that. A rock record. Okay, cool. It might not be that bad but it also might be but a blip on the radar and mostly ignored by the bulk of the population. If a U2 record drops and no one hears it, does it make a sound? Well, we might find out. But hey, regardless of the outcome, if “Vertigo” is the last big-time rock song both released and then widely appreciated and accepted by the masses, it’s not a bad way to go out.
Achtung Baby is such a wonderful album to forget about and then rediscover. It really doesn’t sound like anything that came before it and nothing has sounded like it since. Was it when U2 last held all the power? No. Stand by on that one.
“Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”
Saying “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” is the best thing to come from Batman Forever isn’t much of a compliment. It is though, so there’s that. But also as a song, it’s a wild, whirling dervish of electro-infused stadium rock that hammers and flies, grinds and glides. It’s the rare song that would sound equally good in a dank, dingy rock club and massive, cavernous stadium.
“Staring At The Sun”
I think U2 was at the peak of their powers when they released Pop in 1997. The album is wild, man. There’s disco and electronica and general U2-ness all meshed into one and then when they took it on the road they brought a 40-foot lemon with them. In 1997 U2 felt limitless and for better or worse, they were. Pop itself may have faded into obscurity but “Staring At The Sun” is a truly beautiful song that can endure because if you stripped away all the Pop from it, it still holds up.
Life isn’t as simple as drawing a line between you being a “One” person or a “With Or Without You” person. But if it were, I’d confidently say that I’m a “One” person and damn proud of it.
RATTLE AND HUM MIGHT BE THE BAND’S BEST ALBUM OR AT LEAST THE ONE THAT IS THE EASIEST TO GO BACK TO AND CASUALLY GIVE A SPIN.
“City Of Blinding Lights”
Okay, so if we’re charting takeaways here and the first is that Rattle and Hum “might be the band’s best album or at least the one that is the easiest to go back to and casually give a spin,” the second is that HowTo Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is their last really good album they’ve released and barring something wild happening in the next couple years, their last really good album ever. It has a comfortable home in the second tier of U2 albums, which is pretty impressive given that it came out so deep into the band’s career.
If you’re wondering, the first tier is Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby , and All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Those are the masterpieces.
Early U2 has such a manic energy to it, a wild enthusiasm that when you go back and listen to it is infectious. Their hunger and desire kick open the doors and screams from the speakers. On those first couple of albums, it’s a shotgun wedding of unbridled new-wave affection and grandiose dreams and aspirations with the end result being a shock to the system akin to a couple shots of whiskey in the early morning hours.
“Moment Of Surrender”
A seven-minute U2 song feels like it should be a slog but that is just not the case with “Moment Of Surrender.” It’s deep and trance-inducing, meditative, and calming. It’s a beautiful piece of music that has such a delightful hum to it, you wouldn’t be opposed to a twenty-minute version of it.
An easy, breezy, summertime sing-along that sounds great with the windows down? Yes, please. Yes, always.
“Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”
Because sometimes Bono’s lyrics just make sense in ways that nothing else does.
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