Follow by Email

Saturday, November 22, 2014

U2: The Elephant in the Room

For two months, I have been attempting to write a review of U2's Songs of Innocence. Then I realised that reviewing an album that was given free to every iTunes user for a month is pointless, as least in the conventional sense. Everybody who wants to hear it already has. Thus, the traditional approach of "this is what the album sounds like/is about/why you should or should not listen to or buy it" becomes an irrelevant way to approach it. Yes, it is a deeply personal album, but there are enough books to fill a library that already discuss the early stories of U2's career and the mythology of the band. I could write about the obvious major role that poetry has played in influencing this album - how the very title is an overt reference to William Blake, how Nelson Mandela and Seamus Heaney are quoted in the liner notes, how the album is a not-so-subtle tribute to Heaney who based his entire poetics on his own memories and the humble details that made him who he was. I could tell you how the album seems on the surface to be classic U2, but in actuality represents a seismic shift in the U2 catalogue from which there can be no return. The album gave me nightmares, made me question myself as a fan of the band, as a person, made me question everything that makes me who I am, and yet still manages to have the same inherent joy that permeates everything U2 does. I could spend pages on that. I could tell you that it is a strong album that has some kinship with 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, but fails ultimately to be a great one. I could go on for some time about the joy of discovering that U2 is as fine an acoustic band as they are at epic stadium rock. I could regurgitate (yet again!) the disruptive nature of the iTunes release and the pure genius of that in a marketing sense (two months later, it is still a hot and controversial internet topic. In this digital age of 5-second attention spans, when was the last time anyone discussed a musical topic for that length of time? That kind of PR in the current zeitgeist is nothing short of a miracle). However, others already have or will. In addition, chances are, you already had an opportunity to formulate all those thoughts yourself during the first month of its availability.

I realised that the best way to discuss this new album is to address finally the elephant that has been in the room with regard to U2 since the end of the 1980s. Because this album is about the band going back and asking what made them who they are fundamentally, why did they make the choices they did to be in the band in the first place? So maybe it is time U2 fans asked ourselves why are we fans, what made us stick to the band loyally all these years? The fact of the matter is that U2 expired in terms of "cool" when the 80s expired. Every time a new album comes out, the media demands to know why the world is being tortured with it. Critics have long ago attempted to relegate U2 to the nostalgia circuit or label them dinosaurs in the sense that the Rolling Stones are. Corporate rock, some people call it, in a tone that is more like spitting than speaking. Most of the vitriol is aimed at Bono. He is called an "over-privileged, out-of-touch, megalomaniac" whose very diplomatic nature (generally - there are exceptions) leaves him open to easy pot shots. (The band - and especially Bono - are acutely aware of these unfair, overly personal assertions and have made a career out of openly laughing at them.) The band's loyal fan base faces daily ridicule for being fans. U2 fans are almost as hated and targeted in the current environment as practicers of certain religious groups are. So why endure so much for music?

The short answer is: it isn't just about music. U2 are not interested in being that shallow and they do not want their fans to be, either. They never were your granny's boy band and never will be. Bono is no Elvis. These are human beings and they make sure the world knows it. Highly complicated humans. To be a U2 fan isn't just to know all the lyrics, all the drum lines and bass lines, and as many of the Edge's guitar effects as he wants to reveal the secret of. It isn't just getting tickets to that show that sold out within 30 seconds. Or having a t-shirt for every album in your closet. In fact, most fans aren't like that. It isn't obsession; it's a real, concrete relationship.

It's true that U2 have power, a lot of it. Right out of the gate, their stated mission was to change the world. They have - about as regularly as people change socks. I think that intimidates some people. They have influenced the world musically, culturally, technologically, socially, and politically for nearly 40 years. Some of it is very public ((RED) and the ONE Campaign, their long-standing partnership with Apple, securing the freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi and other work with Amnesty International and Greenpeace, working for decades with Nelson Mandela, etc.), and some of it less public. But U2 do not want their fans to follow them blindly and just do what they are told. It isn't like that. Involvement in that aspect of U2 Culture is optional (I opt out). No, they present issues, but simply as subjects for consideration. U2 is all about awareness of the world around you, thinking for yourself, forming your own conclusions, and having the responsibility to own those conclusions and act on them. They lead you to water, but they will not force you to drink. There is a reason why U2 fans tend to be intellectuals, artists, scientists, think tanks, activists, and otherwise meditative, pensive and compassionate souls who get turned on as much by statistics and analysis and research of any and all kinds as they do by sex. U2 are teachers, but they teach principles and life lessons, a worldview. They lead by example, not by mob mentality. They invite their fan base to disagree, to challenge them, to push them. Moreover, they in turn disagree with, challenge, and push their fan base. Lest you think that I am over exaggerating their influence: did you know that there are professional scholars who dedicate their careers to the field of U2 Studies? That is a real field of academic and cultural study; I couldn't make this up.

However, they are not saints; they don't want to be. The typical U2/fan relationship is a messy one. U2 would not have it any other way. They are flawed individuals in the same way that anyone is flawed and those flaws are on public display. They get it wrong as often as they get it right. Sometimes the relationship hurts, badly. There are times I want to hug Bono and say "I love you, man" and there are times I want to punch him in the face until he cries and then give him the middle finger. (Yes, I wrote that. Get over it.) Nevertheless, I always come back again. I've never really left. Why? Because that is what love is: ugly, messy, brutal, painful, and beautiful. That hardly describes the typical band/fan dynamic, now does it? That complicated, deep level is what U2 strive to encourage. They don't want anything easy, black and white, sentimental, and flowery. They want something hard-bitten and real. Because they are deep, hard-bitten, complicated, and real. When you as a fan have a relationship with a band where you fight each other because you love each other, it couldn't matter less what those outside that relationship think about it.
 
The U2/fan base relationship is also highly symbiotic. They teach the fans, lead the fans, and work harder than any other band on the planet for the fans. Truly, the fans tell them what to do rather than the reverse. It isn't simply "we delivered a product, your job is to buy it". Sure, they run the band like a business, because it is. But the fan base are not customers; we are partners. Go to a U2 concert if you haven't and you will see this. The shows where the band is having an "off night" are typically the best shows of any given tour, because the audience steps up and carries the band through it for a unique communal experience.

This illustration may not work for everyone, may actually turn some people off, but: U2 are like parents, the fan base is their family, and it is ever-so-slightly (but benignly) dysfunctional. Daddy doesn't always set the example that daddy should, but daddy wants to. Family doesn't always listen to daddy's advice. Sometimes family outright rebels. Sometimes arguments arise, become heated, voices get raised. Sometimes doors get slammed and daddy stays up all night worrying because family didn't come home. Sometimes there are misunderstandings. Yet the beautiful moments outweigh the thorns. Daddy is protective of family. Family is protective of daddy. Daddy turns inside out for family. Family holds daddy's hand. At the end of the day, love holds the whole thing together. Like Bono wrote in two different, but equally well-known songs: "Love is hard and love is tough" but "we've got to carry each other" (Please from the Pop Album and One from Achtung Baby). That is why U2 fans are U2 fans. That is why we have been loyal all these years through good and bad. The music is only part of it. Love is all of it.
 
Ultimately, that is the point of Songs of Innocence: these are songs about (mainly Bono's) troubled youth. This album is full-frontal emotional nakedness and vulnerability. It is U2's gift to the world and especially the fans for putting up with them and carrying them for a lifetime. It is love in a black album sleeve. Even the idea of doing an acoustic session for Disc 2/Side 2 suggests this. No more big production tricks. No more bombast. Just this once, daddy and family are having a painfully honest, all-nighter conversation. It may not be the most innovative, earth-shaking, influential thing U2 have done (that distinction still belongs to Achtung Baby at this point), but it is far and away the most touching and beautiful.

All I can say to the haters out there is: it's your loss.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Music Review: "Akh-toong Bay-bi Covered"

(Originally published on Yahoo! Voices on November 23, 2011)

As part of the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of U2's "Achtung Baby" going on in November 2011, "Q" magazine released a limited production free CD with orders of the December issue (also the 25th anniversary issue of "Q"). This CD entitled "Ahk-toong Bay-bi Covered" is billed as the best free CD in history.

At first, "Q" announced its intentions to ship the CD only with U.K. orders of the issue, but after pressure from U2's international fanbase, www.newsstand.co offered it with international orders with reasonable restrictions. Within days, U2 made arrangements for the CD to be shipped overseas if ordered through their online shop at www.u2.com. Soon, "Q" finally agreed to offer it internationally if orders were placed through their official site at www.qthemusic.com, however woefully belated. Now it is available for download on iTunes with all proceeds going to help famine victims in Africa.

But all this hysteria and hype for an album of covers? Yes. These covers were commissioned from the various artists by U2 themselves and "Q" quotes Bono in the December 2011 issue that featured the CD as declaring: "Some of these versions are better than our own!"

The tracklisting is as follows:

1. "Zoo Station"- Nine Inch Nails
2. "Even Better Than The Real Thing (Jacques Lu Cont Mix)"- U2
3. "One"- Damien Rice
4. "Until The End of the World"- Patti Smith
5. "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses"- Garbage
6. "So Cruel"- Depeche Mode
7. "The Fly"- Gavin Friday
8. "Mysterious Ways"- Snow Patrol
9. "Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around the World"- The Fray
10. "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)"- The Killers
11. "Acrobat"- Glasvegas
12. "Love Is Blindness"- Jack White

So is the CD worth the hype? While I don't agree with Bono's assessment (he says: "And it's strange, because when I hear the album, when U2 do it, all I hear is what's wrong with it. But when I heard all these artists doing it, I thought, It's really good." A typical artist's modest reaction to his own work versus others.), I have to say that it deserves every bit of the hype and mania. Following is a song-by-song review of this remarkable (and collectible) tribute CD to one of the greatest bands of rock history and their most important masterpiece:

There has been a lot of talk about U2 and Nine Inch Nails. Nine Inch Nails were one of the industrial genre bands that the Edge was listening to going into the "Achtung Baby" recording sessions, so in a sense, their spirit is all over the original album. One of the great criticisms against "No Line on the Horizon", released in 2009 and also one of the most experimental and creatively stretched albums of U2's career, was that some felt it sounded too much like Nine Inch Nails. Well, this is Nails answer to that- and it sounds like nothing on "No Line". Their cover of "Zoo Station" scales back some of the brash rawness of the original into something more ethereal. Bono's chanting among and around the chorus wails is eliminated altogether. The technology applied to Bono's voice in the original is not present here. Trent Reznor sings clear, his own untampered voice tripping over the lines. The driving drum lines that mimic a locomotive pounding along a track are preserved, but there is a background droning to the soundscape, particularly in the closing, that is reminiscent of the rise and fall of prop plane engines. This takes the song away from the nonfiction location of its title- Zoo Train Station in Berlin- updates it, and drops us on an airport tarmac. Nine Inch Nails chose to repeat the lyrics "It's alright" as a much more constant, ambulatory force, pushing the song forward in a way their musical composition doesn't. The real hook of this cover, however, is the way the soundscape seems to float a person in air while the rest of the world spins by in a blur. This creates a feeling that correctly interprets the lyrics and emotion that inspired the original. One imagines that this is what it must feel like to held aloft in the vortex of a tornado while debris cycles in the walls of wind around you: detached, surreal, fearful, free-falling, out of control, and apathetic toward your fate as you take it all in. A perfect summary of the situation facing the world in the early 1990s.

I'm not thrilled that U2 has included one of their club mixes here. "Even Better Than the Real Thing (Jacques Lu Cont Mix)" feels unnecessary. There are more dance versions of this song than any other in U2's catalogue and all of them various mixes of their own. Why do we need another? Wouldn't it have been better to include this on one of the bonus CDs in the anniversary box set packages rather than foist it on us here? That being said, it's as good as any of the other club mixes, ready and rearing for a party. The arrangement throws this song back into the 1980s. Still, the lyrics could never have come from anything but the 1990s, which creates a sense of displacement in time and dislocation. And I can never get enough of the line: "We're free to fly the crimson sky/ the sun won't melt our wings tonight." (Interestingly, the Daedalus and Icarus reference pops up again in the Spiderman musical, most notably in "Boy Falls from the Sky". In hindsight, these can be taken as Bono's typical commentary on the political situations of the times. In the early 1990s, especially in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism, there seemed for an instant to be boundless possibilities and enthusiasm, which was qualified by the difficulties inherit in those possibilities as "Achtung Baby" clearly chronicles. The vacuum and uncertainty that followed the collapse of that order opened the door and gave impetus to the reign of terrorism now affecting the world. The post 9/11 atmosphere is even more paranoid and claustrophobic than during the Cold War. How the "boy falls from the sky" indeed! But I merely explain what I believe to be Bono's progression of thought here and I digress.)

"One" is the most meditative, nuanced, and interpretive song of U2's career. Written about their own difficulties as a band while making "Achtung Baby" and built around the slogan being freely shouted by people on Berlin's streets at the time: "We are ONE people!", the song also encompasses the frustration of what became painfully evident very quickly: the near-impossibility of making that slogan ring true. It has also been said to be a son with AIDS speaking to his estranged father. Indeed, a person could spend an entire lifetime analyzing and cataloguing possible meanings for this song and one's work would only be half finished at one's death- it's that kind of song. Because of this, it is the most covered song in U2's repertoire, and the most abused. Most seem to take the stance that to cover a U2 song properly is to make it even bigger than U2 did. Frankly, that's generally impossible to achieve and intolerably cheeky. All vocalists thus far have gone diva with this song. The end result is at best tolerable, at worst nearly as devastating as violation. The song is stripped of its soul and left a shallow outer shell with no depth and no emotional substance. It is numbed and uglied. Enter Damien Rice. Rice turns the song inside out in every possible way. The musical composition consists of acoustic guitar, piano, and a well placed, restrained string section- no frills. A female backup vocal completes this rainy, moody, mourning soundscape. Damien Rice's own vocal is almost spoken rather than sung, more a whisper than a song. The atmosphere is very private, isolated, and lonely- and at the same time strangely inviting and intimate. Lyrically, Rice took up the established paint and spattered it about liberally. He shakes pronouns around, turning the enraged bitter questions on himself. This creates another lifetime of meanings to extract. And makes the burning anger and desperate near-hopeless yearning even more palpable and self-destructive. As Bono describes the song (and the relationship of the band) in the documentary "From the Sky Down": "It's a very unromantic love, it's a very hard-bitten, tough, f**k off love." (And perhaps better and stronger for it.) What Rice does is to subtract the hope inflected into the original by the Edge's soaring guitar solo at the end and leave it as purely that, self-inflicted. Rice's cover is the very opposite of the original, and the best cover ever attempted. It has quickly become one of my favorite songs in its own right.

U2 have from the very beginning touted Patti Smith as an influence on them, so it's no surprise they asked her to cover "Until the End of the World". While the original is a sonic, schizoid bombardment, Smith pared it down to an acoustic guitar, piano, and old-fashioned bass. She plays with the cadence of the song, speaking her way through the lyrics and tsking at appropriate places. This is a jazzy, bluesy rendition of the type one might expect to hear in a smoky piano bar in a 1940s film. Perhaps this is how Billie Holiday might have performed it.

"Achtung Baby" was a major influence on Garbage who were just getting their feet wet when it appeared. Drummer Butch Vig says in "Q" regarding "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses": "We picked this song because we love the lyrics. We stripped the verses down and changed the major chord to a minor chord, which makes the lyrics more bitter-sweet." I'm not so sure that they are more bitter-sweet, but female vocals provide a wonderful new perspective and they are sung with passion. The backing vocals create a circling effect that adds to the tension and spinning-out-of-control sensation of unrequited love. And there is nothing here to break that long, soul-battering fall into utter emptiness and aloneness. Musically, Garbage has given it a simmeringly angry, despondent, forget you intro and jangling, discordant guitars juxtapose against balloon-squeaky, almost whistling strings. For the choruses, they bring in the original bass lines and hammering drums to successfully create intermittent moments of epicness. Gone are the glowering sexiness and inescapable despair of the original, but it stands as one of the best covers of a U2 song made to date.

Depeche Mode are contemporaries with U2. Both are survivors of the 1980s music scene, though Depeche Mode has been forced to exist in U2's shadow since "The Joshua Tree". While music journalists at the time presented them as competitors, Martin Gore says in "Q": "There was never a rivalry." Regarding their choice to cover "So Cruel" he says: "We just thought, Why not? So Cruel is Bono at his best, words-wise. And we couldn't tackle One- that would be almost sacrilegious." Their version is a pounding engine of a song. The tempo is ever so slightly increased (that happens a lot in these covers) and it is given a deliberately retrospective 1980s vibe balanced with cathedral-like lifts. The bass lines are not quite as penetrating as the original, but that's probably because the atmosphere here is thicker, busier. This is a psychedelic version of "So Cruel" and comes just short of something made for the dance floor. It could use a little more feeling in the vocals, but that is a negligible complaint.

Gavin Friday is a legend. One of the founding members of the Lypton Village gang and one-time member of the Virgin Prunes, he goes back before U2 began. In fact, he appears in the story during the mad emotional aftermath of the Tragedy: when Bono's mother collapsed with an aneurism at the casket-side of her father's funeral and died several days later without regaining consciousness. Vulnerable, violent, alone, frightened, and suicidal, Bono entered Mount Temple Comprehensive School and terrorized its staff as he tried desperately to make sense of his shattered life, the vacuum her death had left at home, and the divisive affect this had on his family. It wasn't long before he was following Friday around like a stray puppy, listening to his records, mimicking his song-writing, and generally making a pest of himself. Friday included the boy in Lypton Village and gave him his nickname, Bono Vox, which means Good Voice. The rest of U2 followed him. Soon the Virgin Prunes and U2 were sister-bands. The Prunes would open with their purposefully experimental, confrontational, cross-dressing, foul-mouthed set (which was a true sensation in sleepy conservative gossipy Dublin) and U2 would follow, thus playing to hostile, fighting, even rioting audiences that had had enough of the show. But it was a valuable education that they still draw on today. Friday's influence can be seen on every song of U2's early canon on through the release of their debut album "Boy". They would swap lyrics, titles, even entire songs. When the Virgins Prunes called it quits in the early 1980s, some of its members (and most of Lypton Village) were absorbed into U2's road crew. Friday, as is his wont, went his own way. Lypton Village is now the stuff of legend, though the community of it is alive and well. It is the back on which the current artistic and celebrity world of Dublin firmly stands till this day whether they want to admit it or not. Friday continues to be a maverick, experimental character albeit less confrontational- a true artist in every sense. His most renowned work of late has been on soundtracks, such as for the film "In America". He describes his contribution to the original "Achtung Baby" this way: "I remember seeing them working on Achtung Baby in its early stages. I just put a rocket up their a**es and said, Go for it." So it's no surprise that the Edge turned to Friday for "The Fly". "The Edge rang me up and said, Nobody wants to do The Fly- they're all afraid of it," Friday says in "Q". Fear is not something Gavin Friday comprehends. His version of "The Fly" smooths it out like liquid chocolate. This is an entirely different musical planet from the original. He also has a good voice: though still a tenor, his range is typically lower, his voice rougher, less polished, and seemingly less capable of variation than Bono's, but darker and more menacing. This makes it perfect for "The Fly". Where Bono had to apply technology to his voice and whisper his way through many of the lyrics, Friday can produce the same effect, more convincingly and malevolently, naturally. Bono has described this song as a quack philosopher phoning from hell and what Friday does vocally and musically truly feels like it has welled up from the dark depths of the earth. Following the second verse, the songs explodes into something more akin to the original and the end result leaves one feeling like one is trying to compare apples and oranges. I haven't had the good fortune to hear many examples of Friday's singing voice and this cover makes me thirsty for more.

Snow Patrol describes U2 as their mentors and owes their current success to the launching pad of opening for U2 on the Vertigo Tour. Covering "Mysterious Ways" must have felt like an exhilarating privilege and oppressive responsibility. It is one of U2's most recognized songs and a staple of their live sets. But Snow Patrol proved their quality, so to speak, as worthy descendants of U2 and did not disappoint. They gave this CD one of its standout tracks. Their version of "Mysterious Ways" also quickly became one of my favorite songs in much the same way as Damien Rice's "One". "Mysterious Ways" has been associated with belly dance since the release of its official music video. This association is so deeply embedded in the psych of U2's fanbase that the opening chord causes an entire stadium of people to swing their hips to emulate a dancer in the same moment. It is a beautiful and awe-inspiring thing to witness and be a part of. This unspoken cue is almost subconsciously acted on. Snow Patrol, whether knowingly or not, have expanded that tradition. In their attempt to project what they have "always seen (as) the quiet storm of gospel in Mysterious Ways", they have created a Tribal Fusion belly dancer's dream version of this until now more cabaret-arranged song. Musically, the best word to describe it with is sparse. Each note, each sonic effect is carefully placed and executed. This is a proper work of art in its own right. The song builds sonically throughout, but doesn't really achieve the point of full fledged gospel choir flight until the last chorus. What I wouldn't give to see a video on YouTube of Rachel Brice or one of the other Tribal Fusion legends performing to this!

"Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around the World" by the Fray takes a most unconventional, bass-carried, sexy song of longing and turns it into conventional rock and roll as commonly featured on the radio today. This is a very risky thing to do with any U2 song, but especially one from "Achtung Baby", especially one so completely unconventional- even after 20 years-, and especially this late in the tracklisting. Talk about putting it on all the line! I am a fan of the Fray- and of Snow Patrol, for that matter. I enjoy almost everything I have heard by them. With their version of this song, they play it like it is one of their own, in the same style as if they had written and composed it. The bass line that is its lifeblood in the original is nonexistent here except in the chorus. The tempo is sped up significantly. And there are lyrical changes and shifts. The line "I dreamed that I saw Dali", a reference to an Irish governmental official, becomes "The other night I dreamed of Salvador Dali". At first I was inclined to dismiss this as a legitimately misheard lyric based on ignorance of Irish government, but found that this is a common misconception not openly discouraged by U2. No doubt, they feel that linking this line with the surrealist painter, even if erroneous, contributes to the over-all meaning of the song: this is an Irish drinking song, about coming home with a hangover and its consequences. Though like many U2 songs, it is open for further interpretation. And the sudden (at least for me) insertion of Salvador Dali is in that spirit. It certainly has given me a different perspective from which to view the song and essentially that has a lot to do with the success of this cover for me. Otherwise, it is just too safe, even for a cover.

Which is the same difficulty I have with The Killers' "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)". Admittedly, this is a tricky song to cover. It is one of "Achtung Baby's" standout tracks, which is formidable on an album where every song is legendarily outstanding. But this effort is just disappointing. It's not exactly bad, but it could be better. The Killers, also a band that benefitted from the springboard of the Vertigo Tour (some say U2 used that tour to save rock and roll from extinction, if so they succeeded at least for now), are generally a powerhouse along the lines of "Where The Streets Have No Name" type arena rock. The imitation becomes tiring over long stretches, but I do like a thing or two. I expected more from them on this cover. Yet, not only did they not manage a decent imitation track here, but the level of respect they claim for U2 should have elicited something more than that. The tempo is again just ever so slightly revved up, just enough to be noticeable. The song opens with a very Elton John intro and then falters. The arrangement amounts to a conventional song that is both too similar and dissimilar to the original to work. Honestly, it might have worked, in the same bare-thread way that The Fray's offering works, if it had been better sung. The vocals are more showy than heartfelt. Still, one waits patiently for the spine-tingling bridge in the hope of finding redemption there, only to be betrayed. The bridge is paced all wrong, and sung as if he were at the last quarter pole with the wire in view and flaying his horse's hide desperately with the stick without mercy. (These days jockeys generally slap it against their boot or on the leather of the saddle behind them to produce a noise that the horse recognizes and responds to rather than actually strike the mount. But again, I digress.) The whole result is an emotionless, empty, shallow shell of a song that, frankly, is boring.

Thankfully, that is followed by Glasvegas and their cover of "Acrobat". Musically, it is much the same as the original: explosive, angry, grating, rude, desperate, dislocating, and unforgiving, if less dimensional. This song Bono sang without the aid of technology, but James Allan pours it on thick. That, with the up-tick of tempo, are what make this cover acceptable. Allan's voice squeaks, growls, and howls through the track, sometimes startlingly obtrusive where Bono's was quietly and menacingly determined, sometimes an echo on the song's underbelly. The decision to repeat the line "What are we going to do now?" throughout the guitar solo was a touch of genius. If anything, the vocals contribute to the claustrophobic oppression and righteous rebellion of the song rather than take from it and that is what redeems what might otherwise be a too similar rendition.

Jack White is a guitar legend in his own right and has a distinctive style. He approaches a guitar as one would a mortal enemy and it is not uncommon for blood to spray and dribble off the strings when he plays. He is a violent musician with his feet firmly planted in the blues (if you've seen the documentary "It Might Get Loud" you know what I mean). He plays with all the unique rage that growing up in Detroit's slums can produce. Therefore, it is not too hard to discern why he was called upon to cover the most enigmatic song about terrorism in U2's oeuvre. In every interview where the Edge has been asked which of the songs on "Ahk-toong Bay-bi Covered" are his favorite he has invariably named White's version of "Love Is Blindness". The original is a deeply mournful dirge of a ballad, and undeniably among the sexiest songs U2 have produced. The bass resonates through the objects of a room as it were a living being. The guitar weeps and moans and rages as nowhere else. White's rendition is an entirely different song. The tempo is put on overdrive and it is anything but a ballad. Cold, insinuating sorrow that borders on horrifying indifference in the original becomes loud, brash, unrestrained violent rage and even hate in the cover. The guitar is raw, ripping, and gushing. One can feel the sonic boom that must precede destruction and death when a bomb is detonated in a crowded area. White screams, screeches, yells, and howls the lyrics like a man demented by loss and injustice. At one point, he adds: "I'm so sick of it!" Aren't we all? Jack White thus succeeds in giving this CD the third song which I love for its own sake, outside of consideration for the original. Put on repeat, it is a superb release for any number of frustrations.

Having looked carefully at every track on this special tribute CD, is it better than the real thing, as Bono seems to think? No. But it's worth the trouble to obtain and one I will return to again and again as the years roll on. It is a most suitable tribute to one of the best albums of rock history and a perfect compliment.






U2's "Achtung Baby" Turns 20: Its Legacy

(Originally published on Yahoo! Voices on November 15, 2011)

It's difficult to define "Achtung Baby". It is akin to defining a zeitgeist, a generation, to someone who was not yet alive or too young to remember clearly. It is a culture, a world view, a need, a belief, the news, television, and art. It is a love song and an anthem for Generation X that has profoundly affected everything after. (I could say that it would be equally difficult to define who I am without understanding "Achtung Baby".)

But that is exactly what the world is trying to do. November 2011 marks the 20th anniversary of this unique, extraordinary album. All across the world of music, artists, producers, journalists, photographers and more are attempting to explain just why this little album is so important to world and personal histories- and all are aware the effort is falling short.

It has been an amazing year of anniversaries in music. 1991 was the year the world changed. It was the year synth '80s pop all but disappeared. It was the year that saw the mainstreaming of grunge and the underground Seattle scene. It was the year that often showy and always painfully relevant '80s alternative from the likes of U2, The Cure, The Smiths, The Cult, etc., itself a descendant of late '70s post-punk, matured into a real force. Already, 2011 has seen extensive celebrations for iconic albums like Pearl Jam's "Ten" and Nirvana's "Nevermind".

Indeed, these two albums have in many respects overshadowed the anniversary of "Achtung Baby" for the American public. "Spin" magazine devoted almost an entire issue to "Nevermind" and really to everything that was the early 1990's. It is essential reading for those who may find it difficult to understand just why everything was so ripe for the grunge point-of-view, to explain the zeitgeist that these albums stood on the back of. ("Spin's" online coverage of "Nevermind" is at http://www.spin.com/nevermind.) "Rolling Stone" magazine has attempted to play neutral by catering equally to all these albums, and as a result has ultimately failed to fully honor any of them. But in the U.K. and other parts of the world the story is quite different.

British music magazine "Q" has put together the most beautiful and fitting tribute, out-doing all others. Their December issue (which is also their 25th anniversary issue) includes a four or five page interview in which each of the four members of U2 are given equal opportunity to answer every question, a full page review of the 20th anniversary box-set rerelease packages, the cover image, an attempt to highlight how the album has influenced various popular bands today like Coldplay, The Killers, and Florence and the Machine, and a free tribute CD of covers of all the songs on "Achtung Baby" (titled "Ahk-toong Bay-bi") by various artists who themselves influenced U2 or have been influenced by them and even one cover by a childhood friend of the band.

But why was it so important? There are the obvious explanations: "Achtung Baby" nearly tore U2 apart and yet saved the band from collecting dust in the back of people's closets. As long-time friend of U2 and music journalist Bill Flanagan put it in his contribution to the anniversary box-sets: "People will always argue over which one was their best album, but there is no doubt that "Achtung Baby" was their most important." "Achtung Baby" changed our perception of what music is, what it should be, and there is not a single song on the radio today, regardless of genre, that does not bear its mark.

Then there are the not-so-obvious and the personal reasons. Everyone has a personal story about "Achtung Baby" because love it or hate it, it simply could not be ignored. It is the gloriously profound fact that it shaped people on the individual level that is its true legacy. Ask anyone, give them time to formulate their answer, and you'll hear a truly moving story. Go ahead.

For those of us who were there, so to speak, the fall of communism and the tearing down of the Berlin wall was as unexpected and psych-shaping as 9/11 would later be. Suddenly, as if overnight, the paranoid world we had been born into was splitting open like a chasm created by a powerful earthquake. There was air to breathe, a breeze even. It seemed that there was no longer any need to fear being vapourized by a nuclear bomb. No more drills for how to respond when you could actually be learning in class. It was exhilarating in a communal sense, and frightening. Because the question was "What now?" There was a great deal of uncertainty in that breathable air. We had no way of knowing what would result. We couldn't exactly see light at the end of the tunnel, just the desperation for light. There was also the siege of Sarajevo, the Gulf War, millions dying in Somalia, genocide in Rwanda, etc. The 1990s were a paradox. On the one hand the world was experiencing a decadence and economic prosperity before unknown and on the other a lifetime of paranoia had no clear expression. Uncertainty is the very anti-thesis of stability. Some people believed the world would end on New Year's Day 2000, so party like it's 1999! There was an unlimited possibility and a deep-seated weary despondency, even hopelessness, in the same moment. It was a difficult environment in which to navigate adolescence; and, apparently, an equally difficult environment for a band to find their way back to themselves.

But that's what they did with "Achtung Baby". They had grown much too serious during the "Joshua Tree" days, even their family said so. "Achtung Baby" became the vehicle through which they lightened up again, became themselves again, and got comfortable in their own skins. Like the times, it is a paradox. While they were dealing with a whole slew of personal challenges- such as learning to be parents, going through divorce, working through the disillusionment of the post-honeymoon period, so to speak, in their career as a band, and learning to love their art again- they also perfectly chronicled a unique decade right at the start of it.

I was raised as a U2 fan. It is literally mother's milk. My first conscious personal attachment to them was when I was five years old and saw back to back videos of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" from the "War" album and "Pride (In The Name Of Love)" from the "Unforgettable Fire" on MTV. But it wasn't until "Achtung Baby" that I really discovered them for myself. "Achtung Baby" was the first U2 album I actually owned, and for me, that period is who U2 is. The rest I discovered in retrospect or as it was released. And it changed my world.

It was the summer of 1992. I was 13 years old. "One" was climbing the charts to number 1, so I was already familiar with it. I had surgery again and faced another summer in a wheelchair recovering and learning to walk again in order to be ready to return to school in the Fall. And I wasn't happy about it. Mom brought me a cassette walkman with "Achtung Baby" in it to listen to while in hospital. For the first day, I listened to "One" over and over. Then I got curious and listened to the entire cassette.

It quite literally blew my mind. I had no idea of what was going on outside my little bubble then. It never occurred to me to find out. The top forty charts and MTV were all I really knew (with the exception of the greats of music like Elvis Presley and on through Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd- and some of the blues). The only German band I had knowingly heard was the Scorpians. I saw their performance for the concert played at the Berlin Wall as it came down for which their song "Wind of Change" was written. But I hadn't yet any concept of industrial music, of what was going on in the German music scene, in the rest of Europe. I knew nothing about North African rhythms and the Manchester blend of rock with club and house music. I didn't even know what house music was. I had never heard any of Brian Eno's ambient works, or Patti Smith's growling complaints, and even Bob Dylan was just a shadowy outline for me. This was the beginning of the end of my personal cultural myopia. Europe was changing, the Eastern bloc no longer existed and was opening up, and I was opening with it. But my ignorance meant I had no real basis for comparison with the music that is "Achtung Baby". If I had been familiar with those concepts, I might have been more prepared for "Achtung Baby"; however, there was still no point of comparison to be found. It was utterly unique. And a little difficult to digest.

From the very first note until the last, this album was an assault on the senses and to established sensibilities. The guitar was channeled through technology and not simply for the echo and chime effects that I was already accustomed to from The Edge; it was distorted, warped, angry, weeping, straining for hope, and restrained all at once. The combination of beat box rhythms and Larry Mullen's (the Jr. now optional) homemade military snare battering completely surrounded you in rhythm and was overwhelming. Adam Clayton's bass resonated now to the deepest depths of the human soul (the thing is downright tribal when played on a good stereo with woofers). And Bono almost didn't sound like himself. Gone were the earnest power notes of earlier albums because now the music nearly reached those emotional crescendos for him, to complete them required a totally new way of singing. He stretched his voice into new ranges. This is the very beginnings of the development of his now famous falsetto. Technology was now applied to his voice as well, roughing it, making it guttural, ethereal, moody. The result was an album of atmospheric distortion, a sexy, sci-fi creation from some faraway planet on the other side of a black hole somewhere, music from an alternate reality that, as it turned out, was more our reality than we could know at the time. And that's just the music: the lyrics are a world unto themselves. I could write an entire literary thesis on the lyrics and what they mean to me as a poet and as a human being. An entirely insufficient sum-up of them would be to say that this album personified that desperation for light mentioned earlier.

It isn't easy to reach back to my 13 year old self to recall my very first impressions of "Achtung Baby". I am not accustomed to looking back; I'm always concentrated on the future, sometimes, I admit, at the expense of the present. But as U2 said in the documentary film "From the Sky Down": "There is a point when it becomes dysfunctional not to look back at the past." So to celebrate this anniversary I have tried to do just that. This music has grown up with me, become a part of me. In nearly every memory- good, bad, sad, traumatic- "Achtung Baby" is in the background playing or in my head. It has shaped how I see the world, understand the world, interact with it, and have attempted to make it into. Almost every time I listen to the album I hear something new in its musical compositions or garner some fresh interpretation of its lyrics and emotional soundscapes that I didn't before.

This album is frank truth and potent ambiguity in the best sense, and the balancing of these concepts is at the core of what living is about. It doesn't get easier with age and experience because one only becomes more aware of it. There is no concept that is deeper than these, more difficult to fathom. Love, for instance, is a form of truthful ambiguity, and hopefully, a successful balancing of it. My point is: that is what makes this album so important to its time in history and why it continues to be equally important today. That is why it changed the world- because it was the album to which an entire generation grew up. It introduced them to these concepts. Albums like "Nevermind" and "Ten" and bands like Mazzy Star bolstered the development of music in tackling them. The music that has followed it, particularly since 2000, has been consciously determined to focus on the light rather than the desperation for light, which feels like a step backward, especially in the post 9/11 zeitgeist. But it cannot escape that ambiguity even as it fails to balance it, because it cannot escape the awareness of it. That is the legacy of "Achtung Baby".

As the world celebrates "Achtung Baby's" 20th anniversary, the world is finally beginning to grapple with what it meant and means in a conscious sense, to put words to it. "Spin" magazine listed it as the number 1 album of the last 25 years. The readers of "Q" voted U2 "The Greatest Act of Last 25 Years" for the 2011 Q Awards. But all the accolades in the world do not describe its effect. Its effect was personal and that made it more important than anything more generally felt. What is your "Achtung Baby" story?

Music Review: "Music from Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" - Especially "Boy Falls from the Sky"

(Originally published on Yahoo! Voices on October 26, 2011)

I am a diehard U2 fan- no question there. Still, there is so much wrong with "Music from Spider- Man: Turn off the Dark" that even a hard core fan cannot ignore it.


It is an uncomfortable collage of classic Broadway tunes, classic U2 tunes, and… well, songs that defy category. Not only do the songs seem ill-suited to appear together in one show, but there are problems with the individual songs themselves. The ones that most succeed are the classic U2 offerings. But they only go so far. Bono is an excellent songwriter, but unless the style is far removed from his own (e.g. opera, Frank Sinatra, country), he can write well only for himself. Reeve Carney does an amazing job with the vocals, much better than anything I hoped for. Yet, his voice is not mature and strong enough to fully carry the emotional arc of a classic U2 song. The result is terrific songs that sputter just when they should soar- like an airplane straining the limits of its engines at the end of a runway that simply cannot lift off.

U2 are not a band adept at soundtrack writing and that shows in this attempt at Broadway. Their strength is and always has been live music. They made their name by touring relentlessly throughout the 1980s. Commercial album success was only achieved after long years spent building a cult following as an unequaled live experience. To this day, the paramount way to truly experience and appreciate them is in a live setting, though the albums are formidable in their own right. (DVD recordings of concerts do not count- the full experience doesn't translate.) Therefore, I am willing to consider the possibility that these songs work marvels if one sees them live as part of the actual musical. I have not yet had the opportunity to test that theory myself.

All that being said, the songs are strong enough as individuals pieces. (And there is nothing lacking in The Edge's contributions to them.) The foremost songs on the album are "Rise Above 1", "Rise Above 2", "If The World Should End", "Turn off the Dark", and "Boy Falls from the Sky". In fact, "Turn off the Dark" is easily the best song of the entire album. For this article, though, I will focus on " Boy Falls from the Sky", which is unique in that it was composed by the entire band, while the rest of the musical rests squarely on the shoulders of half of it, Bono and The Edge.

The guitar in "Boy Falls from the Sky" is such classic U2 that I thought it was pulled from an earlier song. It is used as the primary theme notes for the entire musical, as heard in the opening theme "NY Debut (Instrumental)", so it is important. After deliberating some time on this, I decided it was perhaps from "Electrical Storm". But a fresh listen to that early 2000s offering revealed that the Spider- Man guitar is original. Still, the mental referencing between the two songs is appropriate.

The official lyrics are very different from those Carney sings on the Original Cast Recording. To find them, I had to bounce my way through several fan sites. @u2 gives the official lyrics at http://www.atu2.com/lyrics/songinfo.src?SID=1086 The actual sung lyrics can be found on u2wanderer at http://u2wanderer.org/rtss/index.php?topic=848.0 One does not have to be a registered member to see these pages (otherwise, I would not have been able to access them). I post these links for comparative purposes and to illustrate the similarities in sentiment between "Boy Falls from the Sky" and "Electrical Storm".



Electrical Storm" is about a strained romantic relationship and the efforts put forth to make it work. Bono once said that this was intended as a metaphor for the tension of our times. "Boy Falls from the Sky" comes from a similar place. This is a song about true love in seemingly impossible circumstances, a love perhaps abandoned (or better termed "delayed") that looks forward to the time when all impediments will be a thing of the past. It contains worlds of hurt and even more of hope. The humbling effect of such an experience is conveyed in the title. The idea in "Electrical Storm" was "If the sky can crack, there must be some way back to love and only love." "Boy Falls from the Sky" takes it a step further:

"You will always be in front of me
Even as I disappear from view
For I have done not a single thing
Without the thought of you


To let you go without regret
I will forever hold you always in my heart instead
Above the screams and the siren's wail
The only thing not up for sale


Are lovers like lights on a midnight train?
Hearts like thunder with no signs of rain
Lightning splits the sky and kisses your face
Yours to the sacrifice, yours to the grace".

Thus, it was natural that my mind went to "Electrical Storm" as the jump-off piece, the formative beginnings of this later work: a classic U2 theme for one of the most U2-ish moments in the musical. Other things that brand it as a work of Bono's poetry are lines such as


"The city conducts the symphony
I'll search through trash for a melody
That might lead us back to dignity
In this junkyard of humanity".

Sound a bit like an expanded thought on the opening verse of "Stuck in a Moment (You Can't Get Out Of)" and of a line in "Mofo"? And the first line of that example harkens back to albums like "War" and "Unforgettable Fire" where Bono was clearly attracted to urban imagery (which is natural, he is a Dubliner after all). He is also writing to his wife Ali Hewson, as he always does, with lines like


"I hear your voice inside my head/
I will listen to nobody, not to no one else."

My favorite part of the song, however, has to do with the notion that the very thing keeping the couple apart is the thing that will eventually bring them finally together:

"These are the threads that bind, the ones we have to weave
They will hold us true, I believe".

It is a beautiful idea that often rings true for those who have personal integrity both to themselves and to their personal principles and beliefs, to those who refuse to give up- no matter how great the obstacles to surmount. U2 are implying that, when it comes to love, belief and remaining firm in it are everything. Like the familiar Bible verse that reads: "Love… bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails." (1 Corinthians 13:7, 8). Ultimately, that is this song's message- again a classic theme for U2.

Musically, the song also follows the classic formula: slow start, gradual build-up of tension, well-placed high notes at the moment just before release, a middle eight/bridge of sorts that strains everything to its limit, and then lift-off: or, at least, what would be lift-off if Carney could vocally carry it. This is also the moment of poetic zenith. Finally, the brakes are applied rather forcefully, as if the landing runway was a necessarily short one, and we find when the music stops that we are firmly on the ground again.

In the end, I have to bow to the better songs on this album as worthy pieces. There is no doubt that with Bono behind the microphone in a live arena they can be as powerful as anything else U2 has done. But as a whole, as a Broadway musical? Judgment cannot be fairly rendered unless one has been to the Foxwoods Theatre to see and hear it as it was meant to be. However, as an album release, "Music from Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark" is mediocre and confusing.


Music Review: U2's "No Line on the Horizon"

(Originally published on Yahoo! Voices on April 2, 2009)


No Line On The Horizon: if you haven't heard this phrase recently, you are probably living under a rock. For some time before the release of the new U2 album, this phrase- which is its name- has been literally everywhere. Now that the album has been released, what's it like?


Some pre-release reviews described it as Achtung Baby on steroids. That is a pretty fair approximation. At first, I was a little disappointed. But as I continued listening, I started hearing things in the music that weren't readily apparent. This album is densely layered musically. I recommend a good stereo with subwoofers, and patience to concentrate on it through several rotations before rendering judgement.

On the whole, it is incredibly uplifting and positive musically. It draws heavily on the North African influence that is Fez, Morocco as did Achtung Baby. The difference is that these influences are a little less restrained than was so on the now legendary 1991 release. Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois were brought in again as producers, as well as Steve Lillywhite for the polishing up. U2 formally recognised this ongoing partnership with Eno and Lanois by giving them co-writer credits this time around. Larry Mullen, Jr. brought in a brand new electronic drum set that he learned to play during recording sessions (interesting stories there: often there could only be one take because he wasn't sure what he did and couldn't recreate a sound) and the Edge applied a new technology to produce a different sound with his guitar. Adam Clayton is playing some of the best bass lines of his career here. It could be that he has finally learned to play his instrument (will he admit it?). Bono is stretching his voice and exploring vocal ranges and keys he has never tried before. This is U2's most experimental work since Pop, hands down.

Bono has said that Moroccan drummers were brought into studio and Eno hinted that other North African/Arabic musicians were brought in as well. In the end, most of their contributions were thrown out because it was feared that the end result would seem too self-consciously worldly. Both Bono and Eno have said that this material was probably the best to come out of the studio work in Fez and that it is a shame it couldn't be used. But it did serve as inspiration. Some of the drumming remains on the finished album as underbeats (listen closely) and the rhythms that permeate No Line On The Horizon are, for the most part, U2 and Eno/Lanois' interpretation of the North African sound. The result is exhilerating at times.

The densely layered positive effect of the music is balanced by subject matter. These are the darkest songs of U2's career. In the title song we are introduced to a girl who has walked the dark side and has come out all the more determined to capture the good side. Moment of Surrender is about a soldier who returned from Somalia as a broken man. Unable to reintegrate into civilian society, he turns to drugs. Then he introduces his wife to the substances. The song picks up his story at the point where he breaks down, begging God to forgive her since in his mind it's not her fault. Unknown Caller documents a man's descent into insanity. He finds himself in a hotel room and recognises he needs help, so he tries to call someone, but has no signal. As his final break with reality takes place his cell phone begins texting him instructions. White As Snow is the thoughts of a dying soldier. In Cedars of Lebanon, Bono takes on the voice of a war correspondent missing home and yet completely removed from it as well.


Cedars of Lebanon represents what may be the most striking departure of the album. U2 habitually end their albums with often short, melodic, overwhelmingly positive pieces. They have at times went to great pains to ensure this as when they wrote and recorded 40 in about ten minutes to close out War. Cedars of Lebanon, on the other hand, is anything but short or melodic. And it is anything but positive. The song is half-spoken cadences of meditative, pensive loneliness and ends with this rueful admonition: "Choose your enemies carefully cos they will define you, make them interesting cos in some ways they will mind you. They're not there in the beginning but when your story ends, gonna last with you longer than your friends." This is certainly the first time U2 have ended an album so abruptly and the effect is unnerving. It leaves one feeling the need to meditate on one's own life and story.

Despite the gravity of the lyrics, Bono claims that the over-all theme of the album is positive. The title signifies reaching for the future and disappearing in it, seeing no end to it, becoming it. In the book that accompanies one release version of No Line On The Horizon, Bono explains that the songs are all about the longing to go back and find that lost love- usually one's first love- that unforgettable person that one has left for whatever reason and still loves. This album is about the search in hopes of a reunion and a chance to have a relationship with that person again- a second chance.

This is the most meditative poetic work U2 has done since The Unforgettable Fire and Achtung Baby. The fusing of musical cultures is in itself worth it to me. While it has much in common with Achtung Baby, it differs in that more of the songs are fast-paced than was the case with its predecessor. I have debated for some time on which is the over-all better work between these two albums- which is serious enough in its connatations on its own since I have always considered Achtung Baby as being the best album in history. In the end, I must conclude they are equal, each being worthy for different reasons.

The boys (as their fans affectionately call them) have done it again. They have proved themselves every bit the equal of the Beatles. Rock on, boys!