Wherein on the occasion of U2's latest ginormous roadshow descending upon our Nation's Capital -- well, Landover -- your humble narrator attempts to quantify the relative merits of the U2 discography, minus live albums, compilations, EPs, soundtracks, side projects, mixtapes, or bootlegs.
Continuing from yesterday's lesson RE: U2's seventh through twelfth-best albums, we resume our countdown with No 6, after the jump. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dy5wX2s-ujs&hl=en&fs=1&]
See Post Rock for a more concise, less obsessive, non-video-enhanced edition of this list.
6. Rattle and Hum (1988)
"I don't believe in the 60s, the golden age of pop / You glorify the past when the future dries up."
-- "God Part II"
In 1987, when The Joshua Tree put U2 on top of the world, they decided they'd make a little road movie while they toured America and cut an EP of new songs to accompany it. But a year-plus later, when Rattle and Hum-the-Major Motion Picture movie arrived on the back of a gargantuan Paramount Pictures ad campaign, the U2 backlash was overdue. The album, meanwhile, had likewise swollen into an also somewhat pompous, confused mismash of live versions and covers. And nine new tracks, about, appropriating, and/or co-starring Billie Holiday, B.B. King, Bob Dylan, and a bunch of other American legends the guys in U2 were only then just hearing about. They just wanted to share!
It shouldn't work at all. But as a listening experience, it rattles and hums along almost in spite of itself, hopscotching from Bono's hilariously inflated declaration in front of the opening "Helter Skelter" -- "This is a song Charles Manson stole from The Beatles. We're stealing it back!" -- to the docks of Dublin (the Edge-sung "Van Diemen's Land"), to Sun Studios in Memphis, where they cut "Angel of Harlem" and four more, on into the Arizona night for a definitive "Bullet the Blue Sky." The album ends with Van Dyke Parks's strings playing out "All I Want Is You," a much better U2 song to play at your wedding than "One," by the way. "Desire," a three chord stomp over a Bo Diddley beat, was an instant classic, too.
In one of the Rattle and Hum-the-movie's blissfully brief interview segments, drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. cracks up while calling the film "a musical journey." When the ever-scowling Mullen can't keep it together, you know there's some bullshit being served. The thing is, the album really does have a sense of travel about it. It's U2's best road-tripper. I'm surprised to find it this high on the list, but then again, Dead Letter Office is one of my favorite R.E.M. albums. I like scrapbooks. That's what this is.
5. The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
"If I could, through myself, set your spirit free / I'd lead your heart away / See you break, break away."
There are precious few fully-formed songs here, but this one punches above its weight because it marked the beginning of U2's long and frutiful partnership with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. Eno, having already made classic sequences of albums in the 70s with David Bowie and the Talking Heads, claimed to be a visual artist whose interest in making albums had passed when U2 approached him early in 1984. The combat rock of War was not at all to Eno's eggheaded taste, and Bono speculated later he had agreed to meet U2 just to make sure his pal Danny got the gig. But U2 won him over with their willingness to scrap all that they'd done before (a trick that would save their career a few years later).
Eno's affinity for ethereal soundscapes, and his impatience with Bono's undisciplined writing habits, are why this has so many hazy instrumentals on it. Everyone forgave U2 those, because The Unforgettable Fire also had "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and the cinematic stream-of-consciousness "Bad," two of their enduring warhorses. You can hear Bono shredding his vox on the choruses of "Pride," which gives the song -- about Martin Luther King, Jr. and other martyrs -- an extra shot of urgency while foreshadowing the severe vocal distress he'd run into a decade or so later.
U2 are playing the title track on the current 360 Tour after a 20-year absence from the setlist. The name is cribbed from a photo exhibit Bono saw in Chicago about the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that forced the Japanese surrender in World War II. Who says these guys don't know how to have a good time?
4. Boy (1980)
"I started a landslide in my ego / I look from the outside to the world I left behind."
-- "A Day Without Me"
Songs of innocence and inexperience. Bass-spaceman Adam Clayton, the elder member of the band, was all of 20 when U2 issued their debut, and one of the things that makes this album still feel unique 30 years later is that the four boys who made it sound like they're in no rush to grow up. Most guys want to front their way through puberty as quickly as possible, but there's Bono, as unembarrassable then as he is now -- that's a compliment, mostly -- singing, "My body grows and grows / It frightens me, you know!" on "Twilight." Something about that title must really resonate for 'tweens.
It would take 10 years for any hint of sex to show up on a U2 album. In 1981, these guys don't sound like they're even talking to girls yet. Even so, lifelong Bono pal Gavin Friday claims "An Cat Dubh" is about a Bono dalliance while split from his then-girlfriend, Alison Stewart (no relation to Allison Stewart, the Washington Post music contributor and Singles File scribe), to whom he's now been married since 1982.
The disc opens with "I Will Follow," a declaration of blind faith that acknowledges its young authors' debt to groups like Television while still sounding like nothing else. All of U2's sonic signposts -- Edge's reveb-drenched guitar, the unique throb of the learning-on-the-fly rhythm section -- are already here. It would take them years to make another album this confident.
3. Zooropa (1993)
"Don't take it on board, don't fall on your sword / Just play another chord if you feel you're getting bored / Too much is not enough."
Sometimes it seems like U2 have absorbed all of Professor Eno's dictates except the most critical one: Don't overthink. It can't be a coincidence that U2's most playful and adventurous album of the last 20 years is the one they made the fastest.
Nobody gives the criminally underrated Zooropa its due -- not even U2, who with the exception of the odd acoustic version of "Stay" or "The First Time" (both lovely, but they're the two most conventional songs on a very unorthodox album) have ignored this album in concert, particularly in the U.S. Recorded in three frantic months between the American and European legs of the 1992-3 ZOO TV Tour -- the funniest, most subversive stadium show in rock history -- Zooropa was U2's existentially jet-lagged meditation on a world that in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War felt more chaotic and impersonal than ever.
Mercifully, the lyrics don't address war or politics at all. Half its 10 songs rank among U2's riskiest and strongest: Edge's monotone rap "Numb," "Dirty Day," the aforementioned ballads "Stay" and "The First Time" -- a gorgeous gospel number that U2 thought too on the nose, but that made the cut at Eno's insistence. Best of all is the effervescent "Lemon," which sounds like Beck imitating Prince covering the Talking Heads. ("Numb," "Stay," and "Lemon" were the three best videos U2 ever made, too. But that's a different list.)
The're surely a Bono vocal version of the disc's apocalyptic finale, "The Wanderer," in the vaults somewhere, but the one on the album is sung by the Voice of God himself, Johnny Cash. Genius. Yes, it's extremely irritating when U2 proclaim themselves the biggest band in the world, but in 1991-3, they really did seem like a group whose creative ambitions and abilities dwarfed those of any rival. They'd never be this good again.
2. The Joshua Tree (1987)
"Sleep comes like a drug, in God's country / Sad eyes and crooked crosses, in God's country."
-- "In God's Country"
U2's two most popular albums are also their best. That happens, sometimes. When I reviewed the 20th anniversary reissue of this, the most iconic and best-selling set of U2's career, two years ago, I called it U2's "finest 50-minute hour." I was right, but only because Achtung Baby clocks in at closer to 55 minutes. On this album, U2 combined the shimmering sonic landscapes Eno and Lanois had opened up for them, and the improved musicianship nurtured by Lanois, with a quantum leap forward in their songcraft. There are songs about Dublin heroin addicts and British coal miners, but the broad topic here is America, and the record somehow manages to hold itself together as U2's tightest and most specific.
The first four tracks -- "Where the Streets Have No Name," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "With or Without You," and the incendiary "Bullet the Blue Sky" -- all remain concert staples, but side two is almost as good. "Still Haven't Found" and "With or Without You" were U2's only two No. 1 hits in the U.S., if you care about that kind of thing. Um, what else? My mom gave me a cassette of it for my 11th birthday, the tragic results of which you see before you now. It's as enduring an album as anybody made in the 1980s.
1. Achtung Baby (1991)
"Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief / All would kill for inspiration, then sing about their grief."
-- "The Fly" (lyrics cribbed in part from artist Jenny Holzer)
No alarms, no surprises -- This one and Joshua are universally regarded as the two essential U2 albums; it's only a question of which one you rank first. What puts Achtung over the top is that it was the product of maybe the most daring, surprising, and wholly successful reinvention in the history of pop: In one album, U2 went from the dreary Po Faced Pilgrims of Rock (I'm quoting myself here) to swearing, swaggering postmodern pranksters, puncturing their own myth with more mirth and cruelty than their many detractors ever could. ("I'm taking bastard lessons," quipped Bono at the time.)
The flippant title -- an expression Mel Brooks utters frequently in "The Producers" -- was, as Bono has pointed out, a con. Look past the big black bug shades he'd taken to wearing everywhere, or the photos of the band in drag on the album sleeve, and you could see that U2 hadn't lightened up at all -- they'd just turned the handicam, one of Bono's key ZOO TV stage props, inward.
There were still big anthems: "One" showed up almost intact in a supernatural hour during what had up 'til then been a fraught and fruitless recording session in Berlin just after the wall came down. (They started the album at Hansa Ton Studios, where Eno had worked with David Bowie on three brilliant albums, Low, Heroes, and Lodger in the late 70s). "Until the End of the World" was U2's "Stairway to Heaven," a bonecrushing number about Jesus (yes, yes, I know) confronting Judas. "Even Better Than the Real Thing" was a perfectly-timed antidote to the authenticity-obsessed grunge movement happening at the same time. And nobody would have looked to these guys to write a sexy song you could dance to, but guess what? U2 move in "Mysterious Ways," Baby!
The album cuts -- "So Cruel," "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World," the smoky endgame "Love Is Blindness" -- all hold their own against any U2 singles. Achtung Baby is the album that almost broke the band, and it is their masterpiece.
One of the many titles U2 considered for this album was Man, as a kind of bookend to 1980's Boy. And one of the candidates for the cover was this photo of Adam Clayton, which you've probably only seen in a censored version if you bought your copy of Achtung Baby in the U.S.
The Presidential campaign was in full swing when U2 brought the "Outside Broadcast" edition of their ZOO TV Tour to RFK Stadium here in the Capital of the Free World in August of 1992.
The show had started as a smaller, arena-scale production in Lakeland, Florida six months earlier.