Sunday, March 15, 2009

Albums of the Aughts: U2

As I’ve been thinking about my 10 favorite albums of the decade, something surprised me: Despite being one of my biggest musical obsessions over the past nine years, there might not be a U2 record on that list.

I’ve already taken a look back at 2004’s exciting but flawed “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” and figured I’d do the same for 2000’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” My overall feelings toward the two records are much the same: Both have moments of utter brilliance, but also moments of missed opportunities and, in a few spots, downright filler. Here’s a track-by-track look:

“Beautiful Day”
If “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” was U2’s attempt to reclaim their “biggest band in the world” title, then they accomplished their goal in the first 4 minutes, 9 seconds of this album. “Beautiful Day” is the band’s best track of this decade, an instant classic that deservedly takes its place alongside such monsters as “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “New Year’s Day,” “One,” “Bad,” and all the rest. It set the template for the entire post-“Pop” period, reinvigorating the “old” sound but with a new, modern twist (Edge often returned to this version of his signature chiming guitar riff). It also contains one of my favorite moments in U2’s catalog, where music and lyrics mesh just perfectly; it happens at the end of the bridge, when Bono sings, “After the flood all the colors came out” and then the song reloads and explodes all over again. Nearly a decade after I first heard it, “Beautiful Day” still sounds as, well, beautiful as ever.

“Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”
This song is frustrating right from the get-go, starting with the unwieldy title and working all the way through the too-slick, bordering on cheesy over-production that buries one of Bono’s best lyrical efforts from this period of his career. It wasn’t until I heard the acoustic version released on the Target exclusive “7” EP in 2002 that I really fell in love with the song. Stripping away all the schmaltz allows the heart-wrenching narrative of this gem to shine through—and, actually, helped me get into the original album version, too. Put those two things together and they add up to …

For some reason, U2’s frolicking uptempo hard rockers, like this song (or “Vertigo” or “Get On Your Boots,” etc.) are frowned upon by a segment of the fan community. I don’t understand it—what, U2 always has to write momentous, emotional songs? Isn’t that the same reason they’re accused of being pretentious and ponderous? They’re not allowed to have any fun? This song is a barnburner, fed by a ferocious Edge riff (it's also an instant crowd-amp). Though I wish they had used the more aggressive “Tomb Raider Mix” on the album, “Elevation” remains a latter-day rave-up classic.

“Walk On”
If “Beautiful Day” is 1A, then “Walk On” is 1B on the list of this album’s classic tracks. It complements the former perfectly, cementing “All That You Can’t Leave Behind’s” theme of bittersweet hope and endurance. I remember being disappointed when I first heard they were using this as their closing song on the Elevation Tour, thinking a new song couldn't possibly have the gravitas to hold such an important spot. Wow, was I wrong. Back in the old days of this decade before instant file sharing and YouTube, I actually didn’t hear the “Hallelujah” chorus they tagged onto the end of this song until I was actually in the building, and it absolutely floored me. Now, thankfully, you can hear that tag on the “single version” of “Walk On,” and it is one of my favorite minutes of any U2 song, from any decade. Though I prefer the single edit and wish it was on the album, instead, that doesn’t diminish the original cut.

A slow-burn gem, this is perhaps Bono’s best lyrical work on the album, and continues his string of tremendous vocal performances in this five-song opening stretch. Whether you interpret it about Bono’s kids, his father, or something else entirely, the song is sure to speak to you. Typically I’m not a fan of Bono’s more wordy efforts, but this is certainly the exception to the rule. Bolstered by yet another massive Edge output, “Kite” is a great track, even though I still think the little coda tarnishes it just a touch.

“In A Little While”
OK, so from here on out the “great” songs are over. “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” is terribly frontloaded, and its second half just doesn’t hold up under the weight. But that doesn’t mean there still aren’t good songs to be had, and “In A Little While” is one of them. Wonderful melody and a lighthearted change of pace make this track a winner. Every song on a U2 album doesn’t have to reach for the stars. This song is pleasantly grounded.

“Wild Honey”
Uh, ditto. Another infectious track that goes down easy and sits just fine. Not necessarily memorable, but, hey, it was good enough to make a Cameron Crowe soundtrack. For lesser bands, this would be a crowning achievement in pop/rock mastery; for U2, it’s just … nice.

“Peace on Earth”
Houston, we have a problem. After seven outstanding songs, here “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” starts to head off course. Bono lost me on the very first listen with the very first verse, surely one of the worst pieces of writing to ever make a U2 album. What’s worse, “Peace on Earth” is nothing more than a retread of the far superior “Wake Up Dead Man,” which closed “Pop” three years earlier—only here Bono’s talking all nicey-nice to God, rather than cursing at him and making demands. Match that to an utterly uninspired backing track, and you have one of the band’s worst songs. I detest this track.

“When I Look at the World”
One of the best U2 songs never to be played in concert (it’s only been tagged once).

“New York”
Of all the great songs written about the City That Never Sleeps, this is not one of them. I know U2 love NYC, but I get sick of hearing about how great it is from all corners of the entertainment community. This song kicked some serious butt on the Elevation Tour, what with those big curtain things they dropped from the ceiling and the strobe lights and all, but it’s rather forgettable on record. Certainly doesn’t do much to prop up the back half of this album.

If “Peace on Earth” is 1A of “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” dreck, then “Grace” is 1B. Good gracious, this is one of the worst lines Bono’s ever written: “Grace, it’s the name for a girl/It’s also a thought that changed the world.” That’s more than enough to kill this entire song, even if it wasn’t terribly dull and obvious. Another glaring hole in this record’s resume.

“The Ground Beneath Her Feet”
Americans got screwed with this release, because the UK version doesn’t end with “Grace,” but instead finishes with this tremendous bonus track. It first appeared earlier in the year on the soundtrack to Bono’s ill-fated movie project, “The Million Dollar Hotel” (don’t waste your time, by the way). It actually doesn’t go very well with this record; its sinewy sensuality seems more fitting to the darker soundscape of “Pop.” Either way, I absolutely love this song, especially the final minute and a half where it shifts into overdrive.

Much like “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” is an album of dramatic peaks and valleys; its high points are some of U2’s best work, its low points some of their worst. Thankfully, there’s much more to love about this album than despise.
Grade: A-


So, to get back to my original point about the whole “Albums of the Aughts” situation: Both of these records have too many flaws to make that list, but that doesn’t mean U2 didn’t do some amazing work this decade. This week I put together a U2 “Aughts” mix on my iPod and was rather stunned with the depth of quality tracks to choose from. Here’s what my playlist looks like, with five tracks from each of the band’s three albums from this decade, plus a handful of b-sides:

1. Vertigo
2. Get On Your Boots
3. Elevation (Tomb Raider Mix)
4. Magnificent
5. Beautiful Day
6. Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of (acoustic version)
7. Kite
8. The Hands That Built America
9. City of Blinding Lights
10. Walk On (single edit)
11. Electrical Storm (William Orbit mix)
12. The Ground Beneath Her Feet
13. FEZ-Being Born
14. Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own
15. Mercy
16. Breathe
17. Xanax and Wine
18. All Because of You
19. Original of the Species
20. I Believe in Father Christmas
21. White As Snow

Quibble about various points in various albums all you want, but that is an outstanding list of songs that stands up to either of U2’s previous two decades. You give me those 21 tracks on tour this fall, and I leave the stadium a happy man.

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