Do I Hate U2? Sometimes.
On the eve of the North American tour for U2 I thought it apropos to re-publish my rant on the band and it’s discography. But here’s the thing: I really do not hate U2. I’m sure Bono and the boys are really nice guys, and they are for sure excellent musicians. Also, you have to give it up for a band that has been able to stay stable and together for over 35 freakin’ years, right? Still relevant? Well, that’s a matter of opinion. Mine is that the band is now firmly in The Rolling Stones category. That is to say they are no longer able to make ground breaking, vital music and have settled into “album every 5 years, tour, repeat until a core member dies” territory. But their musical legacy is definitely intact, and solid. AsThe Rolling Stones haven’t released a decent album since Tattoo You, U2 haven’t released a decent album since 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind (and even that one’s a little sub-par in my opinion). But almost every album that came before (excluding Rattle and Hum and October) contains moments of brilliance, and in the case of WAR, The Unforgettable Fire, Achtung Baby and Zooropa, absolute perfection.
My wife’s a HUGE fan, loves almost everything they’ve done (the exception being the 2 albums prior to Songs Of Innocence), and is going to their show in San Jose next week (an early birthday present from her doting hubbie!), and she’s taking my eldest daughter with her. They’re going to have a blast, and say what you will about the band themselves they always put on one helluva show! Anyway, here’s the original post. Now that you know my real feelings it should put the whole thing in context.
I guess “hate” is a little strong. As a matter of fact, I LOVE Zooropa, really like Achtung Baby and WAR, and still listen to The Unforgettable Fire from time to time. Oh, also, POP is woefully underrated. But something happened around the time of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, released in 2000. Beautiful Day sounded fantastic, and is still a great U2 track, but everything else on that album was uniformly U2 by the numbers, and a cursory glance at the track listing will tell you that Bono was entering his pontificating phase (Peace On Earth, When I Look At The World, Grace, etc). One could successfully argue that he had always been this way, and one would be absolutely right on. It’s around this time, though, that it started to becometiresome. Before I tell you why I really hate U2 I think it best to disclose our history together.
In 1983 WAR had just been released, and I have to admit that it sounded amazing. U2 were born out of the ashes of punk rock but sounded nothing like the gloomy ‘post punk’ music (PIL, Magazine, etc) that was so prevalent at the time. They were singing and writing songs about Irish and global politics, or so it seemed, whereas their peers were content to wallow closer to home and were, for the most part, singing about more personal issues or abstractions . U2’s message was backed up by some supersonic musical vision, too; it sounded absolutely triumphant. And so it was that I turned into a U2 fan.
In 1984 I bought The Unforgettable Fire with great expectations, and for the most part they were met. It remains a more atmospheric album than WAR (thanks to Mr.Eno and, to a lesser extent Daniel Lanois), the sonics more subtle and much less “in your face”. Compare, say, Sunday Bloody Sunday with Wire or the title track, and you’ll get my point. Forget the hit song about MLK (although, really, it still sounds pretty good); focus on the majesty that is Bad and the Eno-esque soundscapes of A Sort Of Homecoming. As far as U2 albums The Unforgetable Fire holds up better than most.
The Joshua Tree is where they lost me. There was no bigger album in 1987 than The Joshua Tree, and in my opinion it was also a massive step backward, creatively speaking. To me it was an obvious attempt to curry favor with American audiences. It remains, along with any America record (take your pick!) one of the most overrated pieces of faux Americana ever committed to tape. This is where all you die hard U2 fans will most likely stop reading, and I wouldn’t blame you. A whole lot of people love this album, my dear wife included. But to me The Joshua Tree is an album that is devoid of a soul, and sounds too much like a band trying way too hard to be popular by absorbing every rock and roll cliché there ever was, and succeeding crazily. If I never see Bono, IN HIS STUPID SLEEVELESS LEATHER VEST AND PONY TAIL upstaging that Harlem choir in the video for I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Waiting For it’ll be too soon. TJT, of course, went on to sell trillions and trillions of copies, and I believe that I am very nearly alone on this planet in my venom for this recording. I understand that. My God, even Pitchfork gives it an 8.9, saying “Funnily enough, while The Joshua Tree once and for all catapulted U2 to permanent superstardom, the album marks something of a conscious refinement of the group’s sound. The album was nowhere near as strident as War or as radically overwrought as The Unforgettable Fire (which was, lest one forget, recorded in a frickin’ castle). Reunited with producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, it’s as if the band finally took a moment to ponder the wide-open American spaces it had been traveling through for years and applied those musical and cultural observations to its songs. It’s an album made for dusty, empty flyover country.” I don’t care what those Pitchforkians say. I hate this record with a passion.
I think my feelings were justified by the band releasing the odorous mess that was Rattle and Hum (Alternate title: “Dry Humping The Bloated Corpses Of Elvis Presley and Robert Johnson”) .I’ll leave it at that, ‘cause in this case the less said about that record, the better.
And then, after three years of intensive therapy to rid my psyche of their last 2 albums the band goes and releases the incredible reinvention that is Achtung Baby. Once again they chose to co-opt the popular sounds of the day, in this case a little late ‘80’s house culture, but the difference was, like so many of the great rock and roll chameleons (Bowie, Reed, etc), they turned their influences into something exciting and new. I was so taken by this album that I forgave the band and became a fan once more. Their follow up, Zooropa, was even better (Heresy!The Hell you say!), because it was weirder, and fresher. Zooropa is a punk rock techno album made by Irish millionaires, and remains my ‘go-to’ U2 album. Because it wasn’t overplayed it has retained it’s freshness over the years.
It is now 1997 and U2 releases POP. Well, even though this album is most likely the one album universally hated by the critics and the fans I have to admit to digging this album. Everyone I know hates it. PerhapsBono and the boys went a tad overboard trying to sound relevant, and perhaps the high concept of “pop culture overload” was half-baked at best, and maybe the whole mechanical lemon thing was a little too close to Spinal Tap for it’s own good, but this album has as many joys as it does failures. Staring At The Sun is one of the best things they ever wrote, Miami is wonderfully skewed electro-pop, and even MOFO, while sounding like the Stone Roses techno explorations circa “Second Coming”, still thrills me for some reason. Pop remains U2’s “Hot Space”, if you will.
And that brings us full circle to All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and where I left the band, which means I haven’t felt the need to spend time with a U2 album in over 14 years! I am now just reaching the point where I feel I can once again listen to one of their glory days albums without cringing. The missteps tainted me to the point where I couldn’t even listen to the good stuff! I’m almost there, though, but not quite.
So…why do I hate U2? Because they blew it, that’s why. They had the talent, the ambition and the courage to continue down the path of experimentation and creativity. Instead, they chose mediocrity, and that’s a damn shame.