Friday, March 06, 2009

U2 Review

by Scott

U2 achieved a sort of Rock N’ Roll Perfection with “Vertigo”; I’m not saying it’s their greatest song but, certainly, it is their best ‘rock song’: It has a tight groove a chorus that is both infectious and soaring at the same time and the riff, my God… that riff! I think in time it will be up there with “Start Me Up”, “My Generation”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, “Smells like Teen Spirit” and, dare I say it, “Satisfaction” in terms of greatest riffs of all time. To attempt to duplicate that would be futile or, at least, very lazy.

So, after two albums of straight ahead rockers and anthems, U2 have given us ‘No Line On The Horizon’; an album that abandons the straight ahead verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge chorus arrangement (the one, two, three, fourteens of pop music so to speak) in favor of far more ambitiously textured music held down by a solid groove. It’s not that there are no choruses or hooks to speak of; they are just more subtle; they don’t soar or stick with you immediately so much as they are intended to grow on you over time. As I’ve pointed out before, the song that comes the closest to “Vertigo”, “Get On Your Boots”, makes a subtle and slightly off putting adjustment to that formula. Rather than giving us the soaring chorus that we are expecting, it gives us something that much more closely resembles a pre-chorus, not quite bringing us to the climax we are expecting. Using the formula above its structured kind of like so: verse, pre-chorus, verse, pre-chorus, bridge/breakdown, pre-chorus, ride-out. This coupled with the oddly cadenced refrain on the title track, makes for several songs that have a sort of anti-chorus.

More so than in any album the band has released since ‘Zooropa’, the rhythm section takes center stage. Adam Clayton is not a great bass player because of any technical ability with the instrument; he is a great bass player because he has an innate understanding of what makes a simple but sturdy foundation on which to build a song. It is his throbbing pulse that is the star of this album, some times bringing unity to seemingly chaotic arrangements. This along with the always steady drums of Larry Mullen Jr. give the band’s music a reliable anchor that allows Bono’s vocals and Edge’s chiming guitars to soar off to the stratosphere while, at the same time, providing enough space for producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois (credited here the first time as co-songwriters with the band) to broaden the band’s soundscape with an assortment of strings, horns, keyboards and percussion.

With the rhythm section in the spotlight, Edge’s guitar takes more of a backseat than it has occupied on the last two albums. It isn’t that the guitars aren’t there, they are, in fact, almost ever present; it’s just that you tend to be less aware of them until Edge burst in with one of those unmistakable crystalline riffs or closes out a song with one of his trademark elegiac solos.

Lyrics are typically one of the last things that I tend to focus on with an album, at least in terms of their context. Initially, I’m more concerned with lyrics that ‘sound good’ rather than those that actually mean something. In many ways, this is perhaps the best way to appreciate Bono’s lyrics. After all, the man who once gave the Pope a pair of his ‘Fly’ shades isn’t one who is known for his subtlety. Occasionally, this can be cringe inducing to the uninitiated and, in all honesty, at their worst they can come off as the poetry of an overly precocious high school student. At their best, however, they possess a sort of divine naiveté and shamelessness (I use the latter term in the best possible sense). One of my favorite examples can be found on their last album, ‘How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb’, in the song “Miracle Drug” Bono sings, “Freedom has a scent like the top of a newborn baby’s head.” At first, it may seem a little precious but, when you really think about it, there is a sort of innocent beauty to statements like that.

My friends and I call lines like these ‘Bono Lines’ and he is able to get away with them because, as ridiculous or laughable as some might find them, HE believes in them. He admits as much in the song “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” when he says, “The right to be ridiculous is something that I hold dear.” My favorite track, “Breathe”, is definitely guilty of having a few ‘Bono Lines’: “We are people borne of sound/the sounds are in our eyes/gonna wear them like a crown” and “I’ve found grace inside a sound.” On the one hand, they’re a bit much but on the other hand aren’t they also kind of awesome? (another great line that doesn’t quite fall into this category is from the closer “Cedars of Lebanon” and says “I got a head like a lit cigarette”… I have no idea what it means as I have yet to put it into context but I think it might be my favorite line on the album)

One of my other favorite lines so far comes from one of three best tracks on the album, “Moment of Surrender” when he sings, “I was speeding on the subway through the stations of the cross.” Who or what is being surrendered to is unclear; it could be lover or it could be God. This lover/God dichotomy is not an uncommon motif in Bono’s lyrical canon. Songs where Bono could be singing about the relationship between two people could just as easily be seen as being about a relationship with God. “With Or Without You” was an early example but, among others, “Until the End of The World”, “One” and “Mysterious Ways” all play with the idea in some way (the last of those, “Mysterious Ways”, not only blurring the line between spirituality and sensuality but also plays with the concept of a distinctly feminine deity).

This isn’t an album that is going to win them any new fans; if you don’t like U2, you probably won’t like it. I can’t say that this is their “best album since such and such”, partially because I really loved their last two albums. What I can say is, that with those last two albums, individual tracks stuck with me a lot more whereas, with this album, the album as a whole sticks with me a lot more. And, in the end, isn’t that what a great album should do? The whole should be greater than the sum of its parts. Still, you have to admire their audacity. In an age where the album is supposed to be dead, U2 have, quite unapologetically, made one.

Best Tracks:

“Magnificent”, “Moment of Surrender” (possibly the most beautiful song they’ve recorded since “One”), “Breathe” (this slouching rocker where Bono’s vocals cadence similar to post-Beatles Lennon, is probably my favorite on the album)


Jake said...

I don't really understand the Vertigo love. Never warmed up to that tune. Maybe the incessant chorus. I dunno.

scott91777 said...

I love Vertigo. It's just everything I want in a rock song. Mostly, though, I think its that riff.

FrF said...

I like "Breathe" very much, too. Bono just soars on passages like

Every day I have to find the courage
To walk out into the street
With arms out
Got a love you can’t defeat


The roar that lies on the other side of silence
The forest fire that is fear so deny it

And especially

Walk out into the street
Sing your heart out
The people we meet
Will not be drowned out

There's so much life-affirming power in these lines that you almost believe existence could be grand instead of dreary. Sometimes "Breathe" even brings tears to my eyes. Yes, really!

I envy Bono for his life enthusiasm.

FrF said...

Two live performances of "Breathe":
BBC Radio One Live Lounge - 27.2.09
David Letterman Show, March 3rd, 2009

Gordon Harries said...

Oddly, I like thinking about ‘Breathe’ more than I like listening to it. Musically, it seems to hold together better in my head and the sub-cormac mcarthyisms of the lyrics aren’t as grating.

I REALLY like the title track, ‘Magnificent’, ‘Moment of Surrender’, erm.. ’Track 7’ and the final few lines of the album. (in fact the last song is, lyrically, petty strong.)

I think ’Vertigo’ is a pretty poor song in any context I’m afraid.

scott91777 said...

I'll admit that I am, perhaps, biased as U2 are my favorite band, but, really, no love for "Vertigo"? I think it's a great song all around. Not liking it for me is like not liking "Born To Run" or "My Generation"... It's not so much there's any reason you have to like them, it's more like How can you NOT like them?


Jason said...

I don't like "Born to Run."

Geoff Klock said...

I don't like U2. This is not the band for me. This is why guest bloggers are so important -- so we can get some other perspectives. G

Gordon Harries said...

Honestly, the first time I heard ‘Vertigo’ (it may be --in part-- a lyrics thing, every time I hear ‘HELLO … HELLO.. I’M AT A PLACE CALLED VERTIGO…’ I kind of cringe and think how very clunky it is.) I was watching MTV and my then housemate and I just sat there going ‘so, you’re an absolutely MASSIVE band and you’re away for YEARS and you come back with THAT?’

I’m actually writing a piece on the album as we …speak… and think that one of the reasons I may dislike it (not as much as some, but less than you) is the streak of ponderousness that dominates the back third of the album (‘White as Snow’, ‘Breathe’ and the musically awful ‘Cedars of Lebanon’) really starts to grate as one listens to it again and again.

And whilst I LOVE ’My Generation’, I’m afraid that I think ’Born To Run’ is not BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCCCCCCCCCCCEEEEEEEEE' at his best.


ba said...

I couldn't even remember how Vertigo went until someone posted the first lyric, so...that's how memorable that song was.

I did kind of like "Elevation," though.

Jake said...

Born to Run is great. My Generation is great to hear once every 5 years and then it's like...enough of that. Not many Bruce songs are in Born to Run's league, but I like a lot of Who songs better than My Generation, and I like even more U2 songs more than Vertigo.

Haven't bought the new album.

Gordon Harries said...

Ba: the REMIX of 'Elevation' is six tons of fun.

scott91777 said...

Gordon, you're definitely right about the tail end of the album; I'll have to disagree with you about "Breathe" though (which has fast become my favorite track on the album), on the one hand I think it provides a nice break between "White as Snow" and "Cedars of Lebanon"... on the other hand it feels out of place in the sequence of those last four songs. It's like if it wasn't there though, that the album would just kind of taper off.

This was also part of the problem with How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb... in fact, I think it took me a long time to realize that I actually liked the song "Original of the Species" because it was sandwhiched between "One Step Closer To Knowing" and "Yahweh" the two worst tracks on the album (the acoustic arrangement o "Yaweh" that they performed live on the tour though was really quite good).

To a lesser extent, I think All That You Can't Leave behind suffered from the same problem towards the end ofthe album.

sara d. reiss said...

riffs i like: Sympathy for the Devil, Ziggy Stardust and Bohemian Rhapsody.

sara d. reiss said...

oh. and Cherub Rock, Today and Rocket.

ba said...

Gordon, the tomb raider mix? Yeah, it's pretty good.

And....HOLLA ROCKET, sara!

scott91777 said...


What do you think you think of the 'new' Smashing Pumpkins? I rather liked Zeitgeist myself.

And "Sympathy For The Devil" is one of my favorite songs to Jam on... I'm a pretty crap guitarist but even I can't screw up E-minor pentatonic :)

Gordon Harries said...

Scott: I think the traditional U2 album has been a poorly sequenced thing, actually. (which is something they share with contemporizes REM. Neither band, in my opinion, make great albums. They make great tracks.) and I should probably say that whilst I wouldn’t call myself a U2 ’fan’, a good friend does routinely point out that I like five of their albums, which is more than he does and he IS a fan.

I was re-reading you’re piece just now and it occurs to me that one of the more symmetrical bits is the use of cadence on ’No Line’ itself (maybe my favourite track by the way, it both works as an opener and is not what you’d expect) and ’Lebanon’, in that more than one of the band members sing key parts of the non-chorus.

I think one of the reasons I dislike ’Breathe’ (which I like in my head, but not on the record) is that it sounds kind of obnoxious sandwiched between the two tracks you mention. (and, honestly, I think that ’White as Snow’ should have been regarded as an off-cut. It’s neither especially good or bad, it’s just there.)

Gordon Harries said...


I just watched the video again (which may be the best ‘made on the cheap’ video ever, the bits where THE EDGE! Just steps into various frames from the first Tomb Raider film still cracks me up.)



scott91777 said...


You're definitely right about their oddly sequenced albums. Achtung Baby (my favorite Album... not my favorit U2 album, just my favorite album ever) is probably one case where I feel they got it right.

Even the Joshua Tree, has too many of the weaker tracks at the end, with "Exit" and "Mothers of teh Disapeared" as the last two tracks, it's like they couldn't decide which they wanted to end withso they used both.

Also, there will apparently be another album released in the next year that will be composed of the more ethereal Enoesque songs that came out of these sessions, kind of like Zooropa was to Achtung Baby.

sara d. reiss said...

Scott91777: I haven't listened to any *new* Smashing Pumpkins. I own Gish, Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and that's it. Siamese Dream is still my favorite, hands down.

For me, the Pumpkins are about a certain age and time in my life, and while it's probably unfair to the band (well, Billy Corgan) and their fans, I like to keep them that way. Whenever I throw one of those albums on it's like stepping into my 16 year old self again and I am happy enough that way. I don't care to discover their new stuff I guess.

I have a weird relationship to music in general tho.