U2 Through The Years: No Line On The Horizon and Songs Of Innocence

This is the final blog of my reviews of all the U2 albums. It has been an interesting trip. Just to reinforce something. I did listen to all of the albums in their entirety before writing the reviews.

No Line On The Horizon: No Line On The Horizon is a pretty big miss. Especially, when you judge it based on U2 standards. The album starts off with the title track which is decent. “Magnificent” which is track two is a solid song. The album really slips off the rails for a bit though. “Moment Of Surrender” is ok but too long for what it is. “Unknown Caller” isn’t necessarily bad but there is nothing remarkable about it. “Unknown Caller” is one of the most unremarkable U2 songs ever. The album picks up briefly with a couple of riff propelled songs “Get On Your Boots” And “Stand Up Comedy” but even these are good but nothing special. “Fez-Being Born” and “White As Snow” aren’t that terribly interesting. The second to last song “Breathe” is probably the strongest song in the whole album. Which kind of shows how lost the album is. The ending track “Cedars Of Lebanon” is a better than average ending track. I am not sure what U2 was trying to do with this album. They were trying to move into a different direction but it just doesn’t pan out. I would argue that No Line On The Horizon is the worst U2 album. It would be the one that, if I lost it, I would be the least likely to replace.

Songs Of Innocence: Ok so I get it. Apple dumped this album on its I-Tunes user whether they wanted it or not. Not that cool. But hey, U2  released this album out to the public for free. Why? Because record sales just isn’t that big of a revenue generator anymore. Maybe U2 thought that they had something to prove, after a less than stellar No Line On The Horizon Album. But, basically U2 gave you a very good album for free. Unless you are like me and bought the CD anyway. The album starts with “The Miracle Of Joey Ramone” citing Joey Ramone as an influence for the band. Love The Ramones. Can’t argue with that. The Ramones were so simple they showed everyone that you don’t need to be virtuoso musicians to make cool songs. “The Miracle Of Joey Ramone” is good but not mind blowing.  “Every Breaking Wave” is a powerful song. The album sort of slips into to safe mode for a second with a couple of ok songs “California” and “Song For Someone”. U2 starts to break out of its comfort zone and starts taking more chances which is why it really starts to glow. “Iris” is a song about Bono’s mother who did when he was a small child. “Volcano” is a powerful rocker. “Raised By Wolves” is based off a real bomb incident that Bono was involved with as a child. “Cedarwood Road” I guess is the road that they all grew up on. These are all really strong songs. The drops off a little bit at the end. Even though the songs are all decent with “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” being the best of the last tracks. U2 has talked about releasing an album called Songs Of Experience. There is a famous book of poetry by William Blake called Songs Of Innocence And Experience which I am sure is the inspiration behind the titles.

U2 Through The Years: All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb

This is part six of a continuing series of blogs reviewing U2’s discography.

All That You Can’t Leave Behind: Even though realistically there were only two albums in between Achtung Baby and All That You Can’t Leave Behind, it felt like it had been a very long time since U2 had released an album this good. I guess you could say this is U2 going back to a more traditional U2 sound. One of the songs “Kite” has a line in it that says, “The last of the rock stars, while hip hop drove the big cars.” So to me this is U2 returning to being a rock band. The album starts off with “Beautiful Day” which is a truly iconic U2 song. “Beautiful Day” is arguably the best U2 song ever. The other early songs are all very strong “Elevation” a fun rocker. “Walk On” which is where the All That You Can’t :Leave Behind title concept is dropped. “Kite” which is a great song dealing first hand with U2’s leagacy. The thing about this album is that it is strong from top to bottom with only a couple of weak moments. Probably the lowest moment is “Peace On Earth” which crosses the line from being earnest to being preachy. “Grace” the album closer is a little weak too. But weak album closers are not unheard of in any catalog. Other good songs “Stuck In A Moment”, “New York”. and “When I Look At The World”.

How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb: Like Zooropa was an outgrowth of Achtung Baby, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is an outgrowth of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The album literally starts with Bono counting out 1, 2, 3, 14 in Spanish. The opening track is “Vertigo”. “Vertigo” is designed to be a catchy simple hit song. And that is what it is. A cool simple rock and roll riff. “Miracle Drug” is a solid enough song. “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” is an emotional song as it is about the death of Bono’s father. The album hits a stretch of very solid songs with “City Of Blinding Lights”, “All Because Of You”, “A Man And A Woman” and “Crumbs From Your Table”. “Yaweh” is a bit of a throw away. This is a very good album. The thing that distinguishes this album from All That You Can’t Leave Behind is that this album has a lot of good songs, but no truly great ones. Whereas songs like “Beautiful Day”, “Elevation” and “Kite” step above being just good.

U2 Through The Years: Zooropa and Pop

This is part five of a series of blogs reviewing U2’s albums in chronological order.

Zooropa: To say that Zooropa is an outgrowth of Achtung Baby is a fair statement. In many ways the style of music the band is playing at this point is still very similar. The album starts off with the title track “Zooropa” which is a solid song. This album has a few references to TV and videotape. The first song that strongly references that is “Babyface”. “Watching your bright blue eyes in my freeze frame.” The other song that makes strong reference to that is “Lemon” where Bono says. “Man makes a picture a moving picture.” “Lemon” led to U2 having a giant disco ball lemon for there stage act for awhile. These songs a both decent but not outstanding. “Numb” is well numb. The best song of the album is definitely “Stay”. “Stay” is a powerful ballad that lurches towards release. “Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crash Car” kind of is a preview of the Pop album for better or worse. “Dirty Day” is a song that seems to have a lot of promise but doesn’t quite deliver on it. “The Wanderer” is a collaboration with Johnny Cash as he takes over the singing duties for the song. It is a fun song.Kind of reminiscent of what Johnny Cash was doing with his America series of albums with Rick Rubin. Overall, Zooropa is a decent album. But, it definitely falls short of Achtung Baby. Then again, as good as Achtung Baby was, it would be hard not to fall short of that level of quality.

Pop: While Zooropa may have been a continuation of the Achtung Baby sound. Pop was not. Pop was an attempt to make music that was, well, more pop. And there are times where things work well and the album is good. But there are misses that are pretty big misses. Pop probably gets more criticism than it deserves. There is a story that U2 had to rush the product because they had committed to tour dates before the album was finished. One thing about U2 is that they are a very slow band in the studio. Mostly because they are very meticulous about their final product. Which leads me to believe that some of these songs were fully realized and some of these were not. Pop starts out with “Discotheque” which is a great song. It introduces the more electronic and dance-oriented music idea well. “Do You Feel Loved” follows up and is another very good song. The album slips a bit with the next two tracks “Mofo” and “If God Will Send His Angels”. “Staring At The Sun” is another U2 classic. “Last Night On Earth” and “Gone” are both very solid. Up to this point the album is still pretty good, but where it starts to slip is the next few tracks “Miami”, “The Playboy Mansion” and “If You Wear That Velvet Dress” To me these songs kind of represent weaker than usual songwriting for U2. “Please” is a good song which in some ways does not quite live up to what it should be. “Wake Up Dead Man” is an annoying song. One other thing to mention about Pop is there are more references to God And Jesus in this album than in any other U2 album and to me, that does not help its cause any.

U2 Through The Years: Rattle And Hum and Achtung Baby

This is part four of a continuing series of blogs reviewing U2’s albums in chronological order.

Rattle And Hum: There is a weird phenomena with U2 that I have never encountered with any other band. There is a subset of people who have a real backlash against U2. The reason why it is weird for U2 is that normally it is for bands that suck. Like Nickleback or Creed or something. The reason why I mention this now is because the genesis of this whole thing seems to have cropped up during the Rattle And Hum era. Fresh off of the mega-success of the Joshua Tree, U2 were everywhere. Rattle And Hum was both an album and a movie that was released shortly after the Joshua Tree. Truth be told, Rattle And Hum does come off as slightly arrogant. The album has some original tunes, some live performances and a couple of collaborations with big name artists. The original tunes are a mixed bag. Some of them are really great “Desire” was a huge hit and is a fantastic simple rock song. “Angel Of Harlem” is a very solid song too. But many of the new original tunes are flat, for example “Heartland” is pretty bland so is “Van Diemen’s Land” and “God Part II”. Also the collaborations “When Love Comes To Town” with BB King and “Love Rescue Me” with Bob Dylan are so-so. Generally speaking the live performances are strong with a few exceptions. The  covers of “Helter Skelter” and “All Along The Watchtower” are only ok. One of the most painfully preachy moments in any U2 song occurs in the middle of  the live version of “Silver And Gold” where Bono goes off on an impassioned speech about South Africa. Also the gospel version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I Am Looking For” is annoying. Sleeper tunes for Rattle And Hum are  “Hawkmoon 629” and “All I Want Is You”. I think the chief cause of the backlash against Rattle And Hum was that it was too much, too soon.

Achtung Baby: One Thing I will give U2 credit for is that they are aware of their legacy. They knew that after Rattle And Hum they needed to move in a new direction. And the thing about it is,  U2 did.  This is U2 embracing more electronic elements. This is U2 being more cynical and not so damn serious. “Zoo Station” immediately announces that this is a very different U2 album.”Even Better Than The Real Thing” is a classic U2 song. It has a great guitar solo and Adam’s bass is particularly solid. “One” has a big history for U2 and is considered a significant song for the band, but I feel it is a little overrated. “Until The End Of The World” is a great song and quickly became a live staple. The first single off of Achtung Baby was “The Fly” which also is a true classic. Achtung Baby is arguably U2’s best album from top to bottom. There are no bad tracks. Sleeper songs are “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”, “Acrobat” and “Love Is Blindness”. This album cemented U2’s status as the biggest band in the world, at that particular moment. It took a lot bravery for U2 to change their sound as much as they did after their biggest album. But they did it. And thank goodness for it.

U2 Through The Years: Unforgettable Fire And Joshua Tree.

This is part three of an ongoing series of blogs reviewing U2’s catalog of albums in chronological order. I am doing these reviews in batches.

Unforgettable Fire: There is a fairly big change for this album. For the first three albums the Producer was Steve Lillywhite. For this album the production team switched over to Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno. Eno especially is famous for his work with Roxy Music and production with luminaries such as David Bowie. Eno is very much a sonic textures guy. Daniel Lanois is much more song oriented. The influence of these two guys comes out in the album. The album starts with “A Sort Of Homecoming” which is a very strong song. The it is followed up by “Pride” which I believe was U2’s first #1 hit single. “Pride” is truly great and really drives home The Edge’s powerful repeat echo effect. Bono’s voice is really being pushed. The other big song on Unforgettable Fire is “Bad” which is almost more famous for its’ live performance on Live Aid. I had a friend who contends that the best albums for a band are the albums just before the band breaks it big. But, I would say that this album does NOT fall into that standard. To me at this point the production team and the band have not fully meshed yet. Plus there are several tracks that are merely ok. Such as “Promenade” the sort of meandering instrumental “4th Of July” and “Elvis Presley And America”. Both “Wire” and “Unforgettable Fire” are solid tracks. Overall this is a good album but not a great one.

Joshua Tree: In order for a band to become a big band. They have to have a break out album. The Joshua Tree is that album for U2. This an album that had at least three major hits including I believe two number one tracks. And its best track is the one that wasn’t released to radio. The album starts with “Where The Street Have No Name” which is a great building song. The it is followed by “With Or Without You” And “I Still Haven’t Found What I Am Looking For” which were almost over-played on MTV and the radio. That is followed by “Bullet The Blue Sky” which is incredibly haunting and powerful. This may well be the best U2 song. All of these four songs are live staples. “Running To Stand Still” is another very strong song. The second side of the Joshua Tree pales just a little bit compared to the first side. (When I first bought Joshua Tree it was on a cassette tape). Starting out with “Red Hill Mining Town” where Bono is really pushing his vocal range. “In God’s Country” and “One Tree Hill” are also strong songs. The Eno and Lanois production team has a much more positive footprint on this album. With them adding interesting environmental sounds, pushing Bono to sing in a higher register, bringing out the strength of the Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton who in a lot of ways are overlooked. They are a very strong rhythmic backbone. After all, “Bullet The Blue Sky” doesn’t work without that bass line.

U2 Through The Years: War and Under A Blood Red Sky

So this is part two of the ongoing series of blogs reviewing U2’s catalog. I am moving through the albums starting from the earliest albums to the later albums. I am reviewing them in bunches of two or three reviews at a time.

War: War represents the culmination of U2’s early sound. War starts of with a U2 classic “Sunday Bloody Sunday” however the studio version of this song is surprisingly flat. I heard the live version of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” first before I heard the studio version. I remember being disappointed with the studio version. The studio version is slower and the violin really doesn’t add much to the delivery of the song. The song needs to be defiant and not mournful. Another classic song is “New Years Day” which totally fulfills its promise. War has several sleeper songs like “The Refuge” and “Like A Song” that are really good. Another great forgotten U2 song is “Two Hearts Beat As One.” Finally, the album ends with “40” which the lyrics are adapted from Psalm 40. There is more diversity of sounds for this album and the songwriting is strong. Bono’s voice is beginning to find a greater range.

Under A Blood Red Sky: Under A Blood Red Sky is a live EP. It is only 8 songs long. With a couple of exceptions it represents a mini greatest hits of U2’s career up to this point with “I Will Follow”, “Gloria”, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “New Years Day”, “Electric Co.” and “40”. The two non-greatest hits songs are songs that aren’t even in the original albums “Party Girl” and “11 O’Clock Tick Tock”. Not sure why “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” never made an album. It is a decent song. “Party Girl” on the other hand is a little dirty. “I know a girl. A girl called party. Party Girl. I know she wants more than a party. Panty girl.” But, the thing about this is the performances are great. The version of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” on this EP is the definitive version. The live performances are very solid. This is a very tight live unit. And the fact that the album is short keeps it sweet. Also leaving the record with the crowd singing “How long to sing this song.” at the end of 40 is awesome. A weird thing about “40” is that The Edge plays bass for it and Adam Clayton plays guitar. There is a full concert of U2’s Red Rocks show, which is worth seeing. Which at least two or three of the Under A Blood Red Sky tracks are pulled from the Red Rocks performance including “Sunday Bloody Sunday”.

U2 Through The Years: Boy And October

So I am trying something. I am going to listen to U2’s entire album catalog from the beginning to the end and write reviews about . I am going to write the reviews in bunches, two or three at a time.

So yesterday I listened to Boy and today I listened to October.

Boy: In a lot of ways, Boy is a sleeper album. I say this in the sense that it is really good but tends not to get the attention it deserves. In a way, the starting track “I Will Follow” is like a thesis statement for U2 as a band. It has the signature simple but powerful guitar riff that drives the song forward. Strong lyrics and a great rhythm section. You can tell why this band won a demo competition and got a record contract. The “An Cat Dabh” into “Into The Heart” into “Out Of Control” is something U2 has never done since. Blending the songs into each other a la Pink Floyd. A couple of songs that I feel that get overlooked off of this album is “Another Time, Another Place” and “A Day Without Me”. Of course “Electric Co.” is a great song that was a live staple through the early years. “Electric Co.” has an obvious homage to The Beatles “Helter Skelter” were it fades out and then comes back before finishing the song. Made obvious years later by the “Helter Skelter” cover performed by U2 on the Rattle And Hum album. There is a consistency of strength for all of these tracks. But, you can also hear that U2 has not discovered its full range of expression yet.

October: October falls into something that is somewhat typical for a second album. It is a little flat. The album starts strong with “Gloria” which is another early career live staple. I always enjoyed the line from “I Threw A Brick Through A Window” no one is blinder than he, who will not see. The biggest weakness of October is the songs just aren’t as strong. There are still good moments, some strong drums by Larry Mullen Jr. Some good lines by Bono. The continuing evolution of The Edge’s guitar sound. Listen to “Stranger In A Strange Land” and you can hear early echos of a guitar sound that will be better defined by The Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire. Another thing is there is a lot of piano on this album. While The Edge is an decent piano player, he is truly innovative as a guitar player. October still shows a band that has a lot of strength and is still good album. A couple of sleeper tracks are “I Fall Down” and “With A Shout”.

Next edition will be in a couple of days…