Tuesday, January 20, 2009

U2's Sonic Adventures

With the upcoming March release of ‘No Line on the Horizon’, U2’s twelfth official studio album, the time is ripe for a reinvestigation of the more noteworthy records of the Irish rock giants’ impressive back catalogue, specifically the highlights which have established their credentials as world-beating hitmakers. It’s also a great excuse to examine the diverse stylistic changes that have occurred during the course of the band’s three-decade career, taking stock of their explorations in things like post-punk, arena-rock, Madchester dance and techno-pop. While some quarters might make the case for a noticeable tapering-off in overall artistic quality in the band’s latter-day works, it’s still worth checking out the characteristics that have made Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr one of the most successful rock groups in the world.

BOY (1980)
A promising debut that is directly rooted in the post-punk movement, ‘Boy’ was a refreshing blast of verve and optimism that blasted away the self-defeating punk nihilism of the immediately preceding years. ‘I Will Follow’ serves as the ideal introduction to the band’s dynamics: Bono’s confident, upfront vocals, The Edge’s choppy, insistent guitar riffery, and Clayton and Mullen’s mercurial rhythm work. Slower numbers like ‘Twilight’ and ‘The Ocean’ display the group’s masterful grasp of musical atmosphere, while the closing ‘Shadows and Tall Trees’ is a wonderfully ominous tone poem that makes for the album’s most creative moment.

WAR (1983)
The band’s real commercial breakthrough, and more importantly, the album that launched their career in America. ‘War’ was a bustling, polemical work that became one of the most influential politically themed records of all time. The opening ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ exhibits a newfound assurance, manifested in Bono’s righteous-anger voice and The Edge’s concentrated, martial-beat guitar chords. Other highlights like the heartfelt ‘New Year’s Day’ and the measured ‘Seconds’ saw the band developing artistically, while ‘Two Hearts Beat as One’ is their most realised early-era love song.

With the considerable aid of veteran producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, U2 went for a wide-screen, arena-sized sound on this momentous collection, and ended up with their most representative and realised record. The band were firing on all cylinders here, as proven in the meticulously epic production values, straight-from-the-heart, mature songwriting and brilliantly virtuosic playing from all concerned. The intensely cinematic ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ is one of the all-time great opening tracks of any album ever, while ‘With or Without You’ is a finely crafted mood piece that is a showcase for Adam Clayton’s simple but effective bass dynamics. Elsewhere, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ is a sincere flirtation with gospel-rock, and ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’ is a muscular rocker that harks back to the topical mode of ‘War’. An all-round winner that fully deserves its multi-platinum status.

Reinvention time again, and this time, the band decided to delve fully into the then-burgeoning Madchester dance genre, combining hip-hop rhythms, industrial tonalities and angular guitar textures into a potent brew that gratified some true believers, while simultaneously alienating others. ‘Zoo Station’, ‘Even Better Than the Real Thing’ and ‘The Fly’ were flighty, beat-based creatures that explored the extremes of tricked-out sonic adventurism, while concessions to U2’s past are provided in the forms of the lighters-aloft ballad ‘One’ and the thunderous rocker ‘Acrobat’. Meanwhile, the percussion-driven, sinuously Arabesque ‘Mysterious Ways’ has the band dabbling in the worldbeat genre.

POP (1997)
A love-it or hate-it album, the glitzy ‘Pop’ signalled the first instance when U2’s stature as seemingly invincible rockers was thrown into doubt. Its bold, if rather heavy-handed, experiments in electronica forms like drum n’ bass, techno and trip-hop are at least academically interesting, but the album does suffer from a lack of songwriting focus. The lumbering ‘Discotheque’ and the self-consciously blustery ‘Mofo’ are awkward sonic beasts that don’t really go anywhere musically, but at least ‘Staring at the Sun’ and ‘Gone’ are acceptable updates of their arena-rock sensibilities.

A partial return to basics after the overheated excesses of ‘Pop’, this album still bears trace constituents of the band’s electronica fixation, although they are wise enough this time to bury it within conventional song forms. Past musical elements are resurrected and updated accordingly for the new millennium, whether it’s soaring arena-rock (the suitably anthemic ‘Beautiful Day’), motivational gospel-rock (the fervent ‘Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’) or cocksure post-punk (the strident ‘When I Look at the World’). Meanwhile, the slow-building, simmering ‘New York’ is the band at their storytelling best, a spot-on anecdote about the more eccentric denizens of the world’s most celebrated metropolis.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

U2 - one of the most awesomest and original bands still in existence.

Wonder when they'll come and pay us deprived folk in KL a visit....

1:48 PM  

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