So, another album that is 20 years old... Maybe I shouldn't be as surprised as I am by all those grey hairs in my beard?
Oh, Bono and the boys... (sigh). Y'all don't make it easy on us, do you? Thirty years of tweaking the dials, sometimes getting them right, quite often getting them very wrong, and, on one or two occasions, hitting brilliance.
About once a decade the band has a nervous breakdown, throws everything out the window, and comes up with something completely different. In the 1980s, after Live Aid, they freaked out, almost broke up, and then decided to do one more album before breaking up.... The Joshua Tree.
At the end of the decade, having reached a point where they felt the hype was completely out of control, they had another breakdown. I remember reading in Rolling Stone that the insane level of hype surrounding the band was brought into sharp focus for them when they realized the Olympic Torch at the LA Colosseum had only been lit, at that point, four times. Twice for the Olympics themselves, once for Pope John Paul II, and... yep... once for U2 on The Joshua Tree tour.
Becoming fascinated by their own hype, coupled with The Edge's new found love of industrial music, the band hit their high point in 1991 with Actung Baby. This album, and the tour that followed, probably single-handedly, in my opinion, changed music as much as the whole grunge thing that was happening at the same time. From the sound, the look, the attitude through to the marketing and to what audiences expect from a live concert... the mainstream was changed by what U2 did in 1991. You must remember, while watching these videos, nothing looked or sounded like this on mainstream radio or TV (MTV was still playing music back then, sometimes) when this came out.
Because of this one album, industrial elements were pushed into mainstream pop music, and the tour? Well, nothing ever, ever had been done like that before. I saw the Zoo TV tour twice, once in Tacoma in its smaller indoor arena version and then, later, in Vancuover B.C. during the Outdoor Broadcast stadium leg of the tour. No video can really capture the sensory overload. It was amazing. This was the first time a band really figured out how to make a performance in these larger venues really work for everyone in the house, not just for those lucky few within the first 25 yards or so of the stage.
But for me, the music was really what hooked me at this point. U2 had been one of my favorite bands since The Unforgettable Fire. But, they were something of an anomaly in my tastes. For the couple years leading into the release of Auctung Baby, like The Edge, I'd been spending a lot of time listening to the Chicago Wax Trax bands (Ministry, KMFDM, My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult), and when I heard the first opening riffs of "The Fly" (first single) and then, later, "Zoo Station" (first album track), well... they just sounded perfect.
Of course, this moment of perfection was short lived. The mocking of their own hype that worked so well at this point in their career was turned up a notch for the follow up album, Pop, and the Popmart tour. Turned all the way up, too far, to eleven. It no longer felt like they were making fun of themselves and the media, but actually taking themselves too seriously again. Plus, the album sucked. Bad.
They've been up and down ever since. But for a brief ride in 1991 and 1992, they had it all nailed down into perfection.
So, they've thrown down a Deluxe Edition of Actung Baby today. Meh. Nothing new. The second disc has a couple high points (the b-side track "Salome" and the covers of "Satelite of Love," "Paint It Black," and "Fortunate Son") and a lot of unlistenable crap (the re-mixes). The most interesting track is them getting their Kubrick on with "Alex Descends Into Hell For A Bottle Of Milk / Korova 1." The second disc, though, is definitely released by the current band, not the band that was getting it so right back in 1991 and 1992.
Listen on Spotify, if you wish... That is what I did. Here is my playlist, featuring the decent tracks (and the original album in its entirety): U2 - Actung Baby Deluxe Tracks
Very fittingly, the last track on the bonus disc is "Where Did It All Go Wrong?"
Yeah, I think Bono and Co. get it.
And then, suddenly, U2 lost its way.
Pop was the turning point, not just because that oft-maligned 1997 album was the first truly weak entry in the U2 catalogue but because it marked the beginning of U2 pulling its punches. After the electronically enhanced excursions of Zooropa, the band crowed long and loud about making a full-tilt dance record the next time out, enlisting such electro-savvy chaps as Flood, Howie B. and Nellee Hooper to bring those aspirations to life. Yet the work that eventually surfaced from those sessions sounded every bit like the "compromise project" guitarist the Edge would later call it; it sounded like a record by a group that had gotten cold feet midway through the recording process and then hastily backtracked to behaving more recognizably like itself out of fear of alienating its audience.
That's the way I heard it, anyway -- and I think I was right, given the unsubtle retreat to its "classic" sound that the band would make three years later on All That You Can't Leave Behind after Pop's perceived commercial failure -- and I've never forgiven U2 for it.
4. U2 Trapped in Lemon (1997)
When U2 decided to go ironic with their Popmart tour, they literally found themselves stuck inside of a 40-foot, malfunctioning, mechanical lemon multiple times. Bootleg video footage of the ironic lemon that was, ironically, a lemon, is widely circulated among cultural-studies graduate students.