Saturday, August 9, 2014

U2 Albums Explained Through Their First Tracks

I have been on something of a major U2 kick for the past week.  They are a band I first appreciated in the 1980s, and along with REM were the creators of the first contemporary rock music that I actually liked.  (I grew up when Poison and Whitesnake bestrode the earth like giants.)  After my college years they've meant less to me, but every now and then I go back to them in a big way.  Listening to the podcast U Talkin' U2 To Me has also enhanced this rediscovery, and it got me thinking about U2's approach to recording albums.

Unlike a lot of other bands, their records are not collections of songs, but works in themselves held together by common themes and unique sounds.  While some U2 albums aren't great, none of them really sound alike.  They are also recorded and sequenced with great care.  The band has chosen very distinctive producers from the beginning, including Steve Lillywhite, Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Flood, and that's no mistake.  Neither is the track listing on U2 albums, where the first track is almost always a defining track for the album as a whole, not necessarily the lead single.  Listen to the first track of any U2 record, and you will know exactly the tone, theme, and sound of that album.  To prove my thesis, here's an annotated playlist of all the U2 side one track ones.

"I Will Follow" from Boy
U2 were very young when they cut their first record, indicative in the title and the first track.  "I Will Follow" was indeed their first big single, but it also established the theme of growing up that permeated the album.  At this stage they were very much a post-punk band, and this is a real post-punky song, with its echoing drums, simple riff, and telegraph operator bass.  Their first album is not the most adroit, but full of a sense of adolescent discover in all its pimply messiness, so this song is perfect as an opener.

"Gloria" from October
For years I've been saying that October is an underrated album, mostly because Edge's fiery guitar playing is really fantastic, even if the songwriting isn't totally up to par.  Few U2 fans dispute, however, that "Gloria" is a great song.  It sets the tone immediately in terms of Edge's guitar, which at the end the of the song sounds like a blast of light from the parted heavens.  That's appropriate, since this album is marked by deep Christian spiritualism, to the point that it may be the best Christian rock album ever made.  (Not all songs conform to this theme, but many do.)  Bono shouts his "Gloria" fervently and drops in some Latin, so you know this album is going in a spiritual direction.

"Sunday Bloody Sunday" from War
War announced its intentions before you even broke the cellophane on the packaging.  The cover features the boy from the first album, this time with a split lip and a look of hate on his face.  The cover and title are no mistake, this is a record about the violence and conflict in the world.  That theme is made abundantly clear on "Sunday Bloody Sunday," about the Troubles in the band's native Ireland.  It starts with martial drums of war, and the first words are, appropriately "I can't believe the news today."  You know right away that this is a topical album with a critical take on the world condition.

"A Sort of Homecoming" from The Unforgettable Fire
After taking a "ripped from the headlines" approach on War, U2 cut a new record with master atmospherists Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno with a decidedly more poetic bent.  The new, moodier sound is announced right away with a driving, liquid bass, African drum rhythms and wall of swirling guitars.  The album has some real clunkers ("Elvis Presley In America" and "Indian Summer Sky," anyone?) but this song shows off the best aspects of the band's new direction.  I've listened to it like ten times in the past three days.

"Where the Streets Have No Name" from The Joshua Tree
For my money, this is the best U2 album opener, a really amazing song.  It starts with a quiet, stately organ, almost as if in a church, and then the gorgeous, crystalline Edge guitar comes in building slowly before the throbbing Clayton bass and thumping Mullen drums get it revved up to full speed like a motorcycle on the highway.  Despite being a huge hit, this is an album with some serious themes of loss and escape.  "Where the Streets Have No Name" sounds like an anthem, but it's got lines like "Our love turns to rust."  That's only appropriate for an album with songs about heroin addiction, deindustrialization, and mothers of the "disappeared" in South America.  This is a monster hit album with anthems but without happy pop songs.

"Helter Skelter" from Rattle and Hum
Uh oh, we're in trouble here.  Bono's pretensions get the best of him on this record, which is overblown and full of rock star narcissism.  When an album starts with him saying, without a hint of irony, "Charles Manson stole this song from the Beatles, we're stealing it back," and then segues into a middling cover of a great Beatles song, you know you're in trouble.  There are some really good songs on Rattle and Hum, but it's a major step down from the last three records, and the first song tells you that right away.

"Zoo Station" from Achtung Baby
Right here U2 makes a statement as bold as the one that opened The Unforgettable Fire.  The jagged, distorted guitar and and mechanical-sounding drums let you know right away that the group's obsession with American society and music is over, and that this album is really going to be something new under the sun.  Over twenty years later it still sounds fresh to me.

"Zooropa" from Zooropa
For some reason people aren't as big on this album, which I find to be absolutely brilliant.  It comes out of the band's innovative Zoo TV tour, and more than any other cultural artifact of the time, comments on the spiritual emptiness at the heart of modern society while still delighting in the decadence.  To make the theme clear the album's first sounds are a mishmash of broadcast signals before Edge's guitar hovers over like an alien spaceship, taking it all in.  Bono deftly and humorously incorporates corporate ad copy like "Fortschritt durch Technik"and "you've got the right shoes to get you through the night."  This sets the tone pretty well for what's to come and lays the theme out as directly as any first track on a U2 album.

"Discotheque" from Pop
If most U2 fans are lukewarm about Zooropa, they positively despise Pop.  I am in the small minority that really likes this album, partly because it is such a daring departure, and partly because it combines the spirituality of their early songs with the decadence of their later work.  (It doesn't hurt that at the time I was going to clubs and digging electronic dance music.)  Of course, most U2 fans are not going to warm up to a song about going to the disco.  In terms of theme, it's the least dark song on a dark album, but musically is the most "techno" and tells the listener right away that they are going to be in a world that is more Chemical Brothers and less "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."

"Beautiful Day" from All That You Can't Leave Behind
The message of this song is basically, "sorry for challenging you too much U2 fans, here's some of that old Lanois magic attached to a catchy pop song."  I will admit that "Beautiful Day" is a gorgeous song, but is ominously by far the best on the album.  U2 repudiated their electronic, challenging ways of the 90s and replaced that stance with solid yet fairly pedestrian music.  This song, as pretty as that is, makes that retreat clear.

"Vertigo" from How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb
Hard rocking without a whole lot of inspiration.

"No Line On The Horizon" from No Line On the Horizon
Hard rocking with a little more innovation, but the inspiration's still not there.  U2's next album will pretty much decide whether they are still an original musical force or are a rock heritage band like the Stones have been since "Start Me Up."

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