Friday, February 23, 2018

U2: in and out of love, rinse and repeat

In 2017, I reached a point in my life when I had this somewhat random urge to listen to U2 again. Maybe it’s my mid-life crisis, maybe it’s the fact I was writing a book about another band of high school friends who maintained the same lineup over more than 30 years, a band who decided a few years back to tour behind a reissue of their greatest commercial success.

I regretted not going to see U2 on their Joshua Tree tour—in 2017, that is. Because the one in 1987 also happened to be the first arena show I ever saw, with Los Lobos and Little Steven, at the CNE Stadium in Toronto. It was fantastic. I still have the T-shirt—it still fits. But any goodwill toward U2 I had in June 2017 had dissipated once I heard the new record.

U2 – The Joshua Tree (Island)

(reviewed June 8, 2017)

It’s been 30 years since the release of this record, one of only about a dozen records from the ’80s that warrant this kind of celebration on a mass scale. Three decades later, it still sounds fantastic, and “With or Without You” still jumps out of a radio mix, a sparse masterpiece that mixes the Velvet Underground with Philip Glass and Brian Eno, all in service of what could be a ’50s pop ballad.

Much like the 2017 remastering of Sgt. Pepper’s, however, this is yet another reissue of an album that already had a 20th anniversary deluxe edition, which included a disc of B-Sides and a live show from Paris. This time out there’s some kind of seven-disc/LP extravaganza with much of that same material, substituting a New York City show for Paris; a stripped down set contains just the original album and the NYC show.

That show, however, is stunning: much more so than anything heard on the more bombastic Rattle and Hum—which was recorded on the same tour. In fact, the Rattle and Hum version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” recorded with the New Voices of Freedom gospel choir comes from this show; Bono claims that he stumbled across the choir singing his song, while strolling through Harlem earlier in the day before his Madison Square Gardens show. A good story, if highly unlikely. Most of the expected material is here, but the revelation is “Exit,” buried deep on Joshua Tree’s second side, which comes alive on the stage.

The band is playing the entire album on tour this summer; headlines were made when it didn’t sell out instantly, like every U2 tour for at least, I don’t know, the last 30 years? (Almost all the shows did sell out shortly afterwards, though.) U2 has been in denial about the fact that they’ve been a “legacy” act for at least the last 15 years, if not 20; no one is itching to hear their new music. They could do a lot worse than revisiting the last great album they made before they started second-guessing and micromanaging every move they made. 

Stream: “Exit/Gloria (live),” “Running to Stand Still (live),” “With or Without You”

That review ran on June 8, 2017. Six months later, after writing a book about another band with a 30-year career—a career filled with peaks and valleys, that ended on a creative high note—I reviewed the new U2 album.

U2 – Songs of Experience (Universal)

(reviewed Dec. 8. 2017)

“Nothing can stop this being the best day ever.” Say what you will about Bono, but the opening line of U2’s new album proves once again that the man is an optimist. Or is he? “Love, and love, is all we have left,” he sings on the chorus of that song. He’s gonna need a lotta love—because there’s not much left in U2’s tool box.

It’s not easy being a U2 fan. It can be hard to remember when they were game-changers, when they were an antidote to the mainstream, when they were truly inspiring—because they most definitely were all of those things a long, long, long time ago. For the last 25 years, however, they’ve missed the mark again and again—and not for lack of trying.

The problem is not that they continue to try, it’s that they try so goddam hard that it hurts. Never trusting their own instincts, U2 chase trends, hire trendy producers who do them no favours, and offer only glimpses of what ever gained them glory in the first place. Those glimpses are what keep us listening at all, the reason their album launches are still media events, the reason why I’m writing this review in the first place. For all the ill will generated by a misfired marketing campaign with iTunes for 2014’s Songs of Innocence, the album was nowhere near as dreadful as it was made out to be—but it was no comeback, either. Even there, as on 2009’s promising No Line on the Horizon, there were glimpses that kept fans going.

Patience runs out now. Songs of Experience is dreadful, top to bottom. What’s worse is that Bono seems to know it, based on his lyrics here. The second song has a chorus that goes: “Free yourself to be yourself / if only you could see yourself.” Can he see himself? Can he hear himself? The next track, “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” notes that “the best things are easy to destroy.” No shit, Sherlock. Despite being one of the only half-decent tracks here, this song threatens to destroy the two best things about U2: their talent and the size of their audience.

The third track is “Get Out of Your Own Way”—how can this band not be taking their own advice? Neil Young’s favourite producer, David Briggs, had a maxim he used while speaking of spontaneity: “You think, you stink.” U2 should pay heed. Get out of their own way. And for the love of their beloved Christ, someone has to tell Bono he should never, ever, ever write a line like the colossal clunker that appears in “American Soul”: “Will you be my sanctuary, refu-Jesus?”

If U2 begat Radiohead who begat Coldplay, then why does U2 in 2017 sound like a third-rate Coldplay? Musically, this milquetoast doesn’t cut the mustard anywhere on that spectrum. When racists bemoan the lack of so-called “rock” music up for Album of the Year at the next Grammy awards, take a look at the standard-bearers of the genre that are visible to the mainstream, and wonder to yourself whether rock music is worth saving—and whether U2 will ever be the ones to save it (again). The answer to both those questions is a definitive no. (Unless you work for Rolling Stone, which laughably placed this record at No. 3 on its year-end list.)

It’s telling that two of the best tracks here, “The Blackout” and the “extraordinary mix” of the “Ordinary Love” track—the original came out four years ago, and was nominated for an Oscar for the Mandela biopic—both echo “Discotheque,” which was the last time that U2 seemed to be in on their own joke.

It’s not easy for any long-time-running band to maintain mass interest through to their 14th album, but U2’s acts of self-sabotage are now beyond belief. That’s even before any discussion of Bono’s offshore investments and tax dodges that surfaced recently in the Panama Papers, which is more than damaging for an activist who tries to get governments to spend tax dollars on foreign aid. U2 have always made it easy for cynical critics to attack them; now it’s easy for everyone else, too.

U2 delayed the release of this album so they could tour behind a 30th anniversary reissue of The Joshua Tree—and now we know why. They need all the goodwill they can get right now.

Stream: “Love is All We Have Left,” “Ordinary Love (Extraordinary Mix), “The Blackout”

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