The Music World’s Worst Kept Secret

In looking at the career of a very famous band towards the end of its period of relevance, we see a trend that tends to be prominent under a certain type of creative person who longs for acceptance by critics, and that is the tendency for such a person to change the way that they behave in light of the criticisms that they receive for their work. Let us examine that no matter what an artist may do, they are going to face criticism and their response to that criticism will engender still other criticism, including the criticism for changing one’s behavior based on criticism. One simply cannot avoid critical comments, but one can manage it in one of two ways–either ignoring it and doing what one is doing anyway or one is going to be a bit of a weathervane, tilting to the winds and leaving oneself open to criticism from different directions. Let us look at this phenomenon through the experience of the band U2, and through their album reviews starting from the Joshua Tree on All Music, as a way of pointing out this phenomenon in a very clear way.

First, let us consider the release of “Joshua Tree,” widely regarded as U2’s masterpiece. Before this time they were a well-known and well-regarded band with some success and certainly major ambitions, but after this album they were superstars. The album, of course, is named after the area of California that was last inhabited by Gram Parsons [1], symbolizing the frayed roots of American music that U2 appreciated even if they were Irish rockers themselves. Of this album All Music says:

“Using the textured sonics of The Unforgettable Fire as a basis, U2 expanded those innovations by scaling back the songs to a personal setting and adding a grittier attack for its follow-up, The Joshua Tree. It’s a move that returns them to the sweeping, anthemic rock of War, but if War was an exploding political bomb, The Joshua Tree is a journey through its aftermath, trying to find sense and hope in the desperation. That means that even the anthems — the epic opener “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the yearning “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” — have seeds of doubt within their soaring choruses, and those fears take root throughout the album, whether it’s in the mournful sliding acoustic guitars of “Running to Stand Still,” the surging “One Tree Hill,” or the hypnotic elegy “Mothers of the Disappeared.” So it might seem a little ironic that U2 became superstars on the back of such a dark record, but their focus has never been clearer, nor has their music been catchier, than on The Joshua Tree. Unexpectedly, U2 have also tempered their textural post-punk with American influences. Not only are Bono’s lyrics obsessed with America, but country and blues influences are heard throughout the record, and instead of using these as roots, they’re used as ways to add texture to the music. With the uniformly excellent songs — only the clumsy, heavy rock and portentous lyrics of “Bullet the Blue Sky” fall flat — the result is a powerful, uncompromising record that became a hit due to its vision and its melody. Never before have U2’s big messages sounded so direct and personal [2].”

Let us note that this album preceded out of U2’s previous body of work, with a deliberate aim to expanding their American popularity. A combination of the cultural and the personal, of longing and doubt, led the album to become massively popular. Let us note that this popularity is based on a very delicate balance between larger concerns as well as personal concerns, of optimism and doubt. Interestingly enough, and revealingly enough, though, U2 responded to their success with an attempt to secure their credibility in blues and roots rock, while overreaching themselves and showing themselves awkward and uncomfortable with their new-found success, leading them to a lengthy hiatus while they pondered their next move:

“Functioning as both the soundtrack to the group’s disastrous feature-film documentary and as a tentative follow-up to their career-making blockbuster, Rattle and Hum is all over the place. The live cuts lack the revelatory power of Under a Blood Red Sky and are undercut by heavy-handed performances and Bono’s embarrassing stage patter; prefacing a leaden cover of “Helter Skelter” with “This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles, and now we’re stealing it back” is bad enough, but it pales next to Bono’s exhortation “OK, Edge, play the blues!” on the worthy, decidedly unbluesy “Silver and Gold.” Both comments reveal more than they intend — throughout the album, U2 sound paralyzed by their new status as “rock’s most important band.” They react by attempting to boost their classic rock credibility. They embrace American roots rock, something they ignored before. Occasionally, these experiments work: “Desire” has an intoxicating Bo Diddley beat, “Angel of Harlem” is a punchy, sunny Stax-soul tribute, “When Loves Come to Town” is an endearingly awkward blues duet with B.B. King, and the Dylan collaboration “Love Rescue Me” is an overlooked minor bluesy gem. However, these get swallowed up in the bluster of the live tracks, the misguided gospel interpretation of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and the shameful answer to John Lennon’s searing confession “God,” “God, Pt. 2.” A couple of affecting laments — the cascading “All I Want Is You” and “Heartland,” which sounds like a Joshua Tree outtake — do slip out underneath the posturing, but Rattle and Hum is by far the least-focused record U2 ever made, and it’s little wonder that they retreated for three years after its release to rethink their whole approach [3].”

When they returned, they were a much different band than before. Abandoning their experiments with American rock, and their overblown arrogance, they came back with an album which focused on personal details (lurching back towards Joshua Tree) and which focused on European music rather than American music:

“Reinventions rarely come as thorough and effective as Achtung Baby, an album that completely changed U2’s sound and style. The crashing, unrecognizable distorted guitars that open “Zoo Station” are a clear signal that U2 have traded their Americana pretensions for postmodern, contemporary European music. Drawing equally from Bowie’s electronic, avant-garde explorations of the late ’70s and the neo-psychedelic sounds of the thriving rave and Madchester club scenes of early-’90s England, Achtung Baby sounds vibrant and endlessly inventive. Unlike their inspirations, U2 rarely experiment with song structures over the course of the album. Instead, they use the thick dance beats, swirling guitars, layers of effects, and found sounds to break traditional songs out of their constraints, revealing the tortured emotional core of their songs with the hyper-loaded arrangements. In such a dense musical setting, it isn’t surprising that U2 have abandoned the political for the personal on Achtung Baby, since the music, even with its inviting rhythms, is more introspective than anthemic. Bono has never been as emotionally naked as he is on Achtung Baby, creating a feverish nightmare of broken hearts and desperate loneliness; unlike other U2 albums, it’s filled with sexual imagery, much of it quite disturbing, and it ends on a disquieting note. Few bands as far into their career as U2 have recorded an album as adventurous or fulfilled their ambitions quite as successfully as they do on Achtung Baby, and the result is arguably their best album [4].”

Not surprisingly, the follow-up to “Achtung Baby” was not unlike the follow-up to “The Joshua Tree,” more experimental and less focused, as well as an ambitious continuation of the previous album, but lacking the harsh criticism that “Rattle And Hum” found:

“U2 planned to record a new EP before launching the European leg of their ambitious Zoo TV tour in 1993, but the EP quickly turned into the full-length album Zooropa. Picking up where Achtung Baby left off, Zooropa delves heavily into U2’s newfound affection for experimental music and dance clubs. While the title track marries those inclinations to the anthems of The Joshua Tree, most of the record is far more daring than its predecessor. While that occasionally means it’s unfocused and meandering, it also results in a number of wonderful moments, like the quiet menace of “Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car,” and the space-age German disco of “Lemon,” the Edge’s droning mantra “Numb,” and the gentle, heartbroken “Stay (Faraway, So Close!),” one of U2’s very best love songs. As the album winds to a close, it drifts off track, yet the best moments of Zooropa rank among U2’s most inspired and rewarding music [5]. ”

Given that U2 spent the next few years after “Zooropa” engaging in occasional one-off soundtrack hits (like “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” from the Batman Forever soundtrack and “If God Will Send His Angels” for the City of Angels soundtrack) as well as a very ambitious soundtrack album under the Passengers soundtrack, but as such experiments were not hated and reviled, they continued unabated, and U2 continued on their interest in dance pop that they had honed with their previous albums. It was not until they released their next album, which focused on Miami, that criticism drove them to change their ways:

“No matter which way you look at it, Pop doesn’t have the same shock of the new that Achtung Baby delivered on first listen. Less experimental and more song-oriented than Zooropa, Pop attempts to sell the glitzy rush of techno to an audience weaned on arena rock. And that audience includes U2 themselves. While they never sound like they don’t believe in what they’re doing, they still remove most of the radical elements of electronic dance, which is evident to anyone with just a passing knowledge of the Chemical Brothers and Underworld. To a new listener, Pop has flashes of surprise — particularly on the rampaging “Mofo” — but underneath the surface, U2 rely on anthemic rockers and ballads. “Discotheque” might be a little clumsy, but “Staring at the Sun” shimmers with synthesizers borrowed from Massive Attack and a Noel Gallagher chorus. Similarly, “Do You Feel Loved” and “If You Wear That Velvet Dress” fuse old-fashioned U2 dynamism with a keen sense of the cool eroticism that makes trip-hop so alluring. Problems arise when the group tries to go for conventional rock songs, some of which are symptomatic of the return of U2’s crusade for salvation. Pop is inflected with the desire for a higher power to save the world from its jaded spiral of decay and immorality, which is why the group’s embrace of dance music never seems joyous — instead of providing an intoxicating rush of gloss and glamour, it functions as a backdrop for a plea of salvation. Achtung Baby also was a comment on the numbing isolation of modern culture, but it made sweeping statements through personal observations; Pop makes sweeping statements through sweeping observations. The difference is what makes Pop an easy record to admire, but a hard one to love [6].”

U2, as might be expected, retreated from their experimentation both musically as well as in their title, releasing an album called “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” which was a return to arena rock and a return to popularity for U2, even if it was a bit of a retreat from their experimentation over the course of the 1990’s which had proven so rewarding:

“Nearly ten years after beginning U2 Mach II with their brilliant seventh album Achtung Baby, U2 ease into their third phase with 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The title signifies more than it seems, since the group sifts through its past, working with Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, all in an effort to construct a classicist U2 album. Thankfully, it’s a rock record from a band that absorbed all the elastic experimentation, studio trickery, dance flirtations, and genre bending of Achtung, Zooropa, and Pop — all they’ve shed is the irony. U2 choose not to delve as darkly personal as they did on Achtung or Zooropa, yet they also avoid the alienating archness of Pop, returning to the generous spirit that flowed through their best ’80s records. On that level, All may be reminiscent of The Joshua Tree, but this is a clever and craftsmanlike record, filled with nifty twists in the arrangements, small sonic details, and colors. U2 take subtle risks, such as their best pure pop song ever with “Wild Honey”; they’re so self-confident they effortlessly write their best anthem in years with “Beautiful Day”; they offer the gospel-influenced “Stuck in a Moment,” never once lowering it to the shtick it would have been on Rattle and Hum. Like any work from craftsmen, All That You Can’t Leave Behind winds up being a work of modest pleasures, where the way the verse eases into the chorus means more than the overall message, and this is truly the first U2 album where that sentiment applies — but there is genuine pleasure in their craft, for the band and listener alike [7].”

It was not a surprise that given the popularity that “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” that U2 continued in the vein of forgetting that their experimental period in the 1990’s had ever existed with their next album, which, also unsurprisingly received a lot of criticism:

“Ever since the beginning of their career, U2 had a sense of purpose and played on a larger scale than their peers, so when they stumbled with the knowing rocktronica fusion of 1997’s Pop — the lone critical and commercial flop in their catalog — it was enough to shake the perception held among fans and critics, perhaps even among the group itself, that the band was predestined to always be the world’s biggest and best rock & roll band. Following that brief, jarring stumble, U2 got back to where they once belonged with All That You Can’t Leave Behind, returning to the big-hearted anthems of their ’80s work. It was a confident, cinematic album that played to their strengths, winning back the allegiance of wary fans and critics, who were eager to once again bestow the title of the world’s biggest and best band upon the band, but all that praise didn’t acknowledge a strange fact about the album: it was a conservative affair. After grandly taking risks for the better part of a decade, U2 curbed their sense of adventure, consciously stripping away the irony that marked every one of their albums since 1991’s Achtung Baby, and returning to the big, earnest sound and sensibility of their classic ’80s work. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, the long-awaited 2004 sequel to ATYCLB, proves that this retreat was no mere fling: the band is committed to turning back the clock and acting like the ’90s never happened [8].”

It should go without saying that after being criticized for being too conservative that they would try to go experimental, but it is a bit disappointing that they had no plan at all except to experiment, and since they had already taken advantage of North America and Europe, they went to North Africa this time to try to find some inspiration. They are running out of places in the world to go to seek a different direction unless they want to make a record influenced by East, Southeast, or South Asia or aboriginal Australia:

A rock & roll open secret: U2 care very much about what other people say about them. Ever since they hit the big time in 1987 with The Joshua Tree, every album is a response to the last — rather, a response to the response, a way to correct the mistakes of the last album: Achtung Baby erased the roots rock experiment Rattle and Hum, All That You Can’t Leave Behind straightened out the fumbling Pop, and 2009’s No Line on the Horizon is a riposte to the suggestion they played it too safe on 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. After recording two new cuts with Rick Rubin for the ’06 compilation U218 and flirting with will.i.am, U2 reunited with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois (here billed as “Danny” for some reason), who not only produced The Joshua Tree but pointed the group toward aural architecture on The Unforgettable Fire. Much like All That You Can’t and Atomic Bomb, which were largely recorded with their first producer, Steve Lillywhite, this is a return to the familiar for U2, but where their Lillywhite LPs are characterized by muscle, the Eno/Lanois records are where the band take risks, and so it is here that U2 attempts to recapture that spacy, mysterious atmosphere of The Unforgettable Fire and then take it further. Contrary to the suggestion of the clanking, sputtering first single “Get on Your Boots” — its riffs and “Pump It Up” chant sounding like a cheap mashup stitched together in GarageBand — this isn’t a garish, gaudy electro-dalliance in the vein of Pop. Apart from a stilted middle section — “Boots,” the hamfisted white-boy funk “Stand Up Comedy,” and the not-nearly-as-bad-as-its-title anthem “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”; tellingly, the only three songs here to not bear co-writing credits from Eno and Lanois — No Line on the Horizon is all austere grey tones and midtempo meditation. It’s a record that yearns to be intimate but U2 don’t do intimate, they only do majestic, or as Bono sings on one of the albums best tracks, they do “Magnificent.” Here, as on “No Line on the Horizon” and “Breathe,” U2 strike that unmistakable blend of soaring, widescreen sonics and unflinching openhearted emotion that’s been their trademark, turning the intimate into something hauntingly universal. These songs resonate deeper and longer than anything on Atomic Bomb, their grandeur almost seeming effortless. It’s the rest of the record that illustrates how difficult it is to sound so magnificent. With the exception of that strained middle triptych, the rest of the album is in the vein of “No Line on the Horizon”, “Magnificent” and “Breathe,” only quieter and unfocused, with its ideas drifting instead of gelling. Too often, the album whispers in a murmur so quiet it’s quite easy to ignore — “White as Snow,” an adaptation of a traditional folk tune, and “Cedars of Lebanon,” its verses not much more than a recitation, simmer so slowly they seem to evaporate — but at least these poorly defined subtleties sustain the hazily melancholy mood of No Line on the Horizon. When U2, Eno, and Lanois push too hard — the ill-begotten techno-speak overload of “Unknown Caller,” the sound sculpture of “Fez-Being Born” — the ideas collapse like a pyramid of cards, the confusion amplifying the aimless stretches of the album, turning it into a murky muddle. Upon first listen, No Line on the Horizon seems as if it would be a classic grower, an album that makes sense with repeated spins, but that repetition only makes the album more elusive, revealing not that U2 went into the studio with a dense, complicated blueprint, but rather, they had no plan at all.”

Where does U2 go from here? The secret of their ways, of their general attitude of music has been exposed, and every album since “Joshua Tree” has marked a response to criticism. Where do they go from here? What happens if their plan to make a Spiderman musical only exposes them to more criticism and ridicule? What happens if they have no plan on how to regain relevance and popular appeal after more than 30 years of musical popularity? What lessons can we learn from the lurching, uneven career of U2? Let us ponder the fact that responding to criticism does not in any way eliminate that criticism because balance is so difficult to maintain, and because everyone has their own perspective that will often be critical. Do we choose to be true to ourselves or do we choose to let others dictate our decisions through their criticisms. Ultimately, we are responsible for our art and our lives, even if we have to bear the criticism that will inevitably come from our being public figures.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/why-arent-they-in-the-rock-roll-hall-of-fame-gram-parsonsthe-international-submarine-bandthe-flying-burrito-brothers/

[2] http://www.allmusic.com/album/the-joshua-tree-mw0000196162

[3] http://www.allmusic.com/album/rattle-and-hum-mw0000375268

[4] http://www.allmusic.com/album/achtung-baby-mw0000202435

[5] http://www.allmusic.com/album/zooropa-mw0000098950

[6] http://www.allmusic.com/album/pop-mw0000090394

[7] http://www.allmusic.com/album/all-that-you-cant-leave-behind-mw0000101186

[8] http://www.allmusic.com/album/how-to-dismantle-an-atomic-bomb-mw0000259092

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Music History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Music World’s Worst Kept Secret

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Writing The Record | Edge Induced Cohesion

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