Music from the Eden Cycle: U2’s Pop

Say what you will about U2’s Pop, it’s an interesting album to say the least.  It’s not quite an extension of their electronica-influenced albums Achtung Baby and Zooropa (or their foray into deliberate non-commercial territory under the Passengers moniker, Original Soundtracks 1) as it’s a deliberate side-step.  It’s twitchy in places, barren in others.  They freely admit that it was an unfinished album, a record they should have spent more time on, had they not had a major tour to prepare for.

It’s not their strongest, but I still enjoy it.  It kind of reminds me of 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire in a way, as it sounds like a band in the middle of evolving.  I remember when it was about to come out while I was at HMV; the PGD sales rep (back when U2 was distributed by PolyGram) was obviously trying to upsell it because hey — Big Name Band, right?  But he knew he couldn’t quite pull it off.  He was let down by it, having felt it was one of their weakest albums.  Well…in the context of their career path, when you hit the stratosphere with The Joshua Tree and you keep getting more ridiculously popular, any move aside from UP seems like a step down.  And to most critics, this one felt like a severe misstep.

To be honest, I felt the exact opposite about it.  I was actually let down by Zooropa, having felt that album was more like Achtung Baby Outtakes Wot Weren’t B-SidesPop felt a lot stronger and more cohesive to me.  It ended up being one of the first albums that received heavy rotation during my first round of writing sessions when I started The Phoenix Effect.  I kind of liked its similarity to the Beatles’ White Album…it starts off pretty strong with “Discotheque” and “Do You Feel Loved”…and progressively gets stranger and darker as the album goes on.  The final track, “Wake Up Dead Man” is the polar opposite of its opening track; one is dense and trippy, the other is wiry and exhausted.  The whole flow of the album works perfectly for me.

This was precisely what I needed for my writing session soundtracks!  I wanted to hear something that was a little left of commercial, something strong but not singles-oriented, something that had ambience.  Something that inspired the tension that I’d need in the new novel I was writing.

My writing nook down in my parents’ basement (it wasn’t called the Belfry yet…that name wouldn’t come for another few years) was right near the bottom of the stairs, using one of my uncles’ old desks and one of my dad’s dusty rolling desk chairs.  I had my Windows 3.1 PC that I’d bought with my own tax return money and a big heavy CRT monitor donated by my sister.  I didn’t even have Word 97 at that time, as I don’t think it would have fit on the system…I wrote everything using the Write program instead, and that worked just fine for me.

When I brought my longhand work home from the Day Job, I’d sit down at the PC and start transcribing what I’d written.  This is pretty much where I taught myself how to revise; I knew I’d have to flesh out a lot of what I’d written, so I figured that was the perfect time for it.  I’d figure out what tone I was trying to capture with the prose and expand on it.  And sometimes, the instant revision would give me an idea of what I’d need to write the following day.

It was a learning process the entire time, and I knew I’d want a writing soundtrack to go with it.  Pop was one of the first, and pretty much stayed with me for a good number of years until the single novel morphed into the Bridgetown Trilogy.

The Joshua Tree Turns 30

I remember when U2’s breakthrough album The Joshua Tree came out, because it wasn’t just the usual music nerds like me that were eagerly awaiting for it; most of the guys I knew on my high school football team couldn’t wait to get their hands on it!  That was certainly a change.  Usually the jocks’ tastes in music and my tastes never crossed paths at all.

It could be that the teaser single, “With or Without You”, was such a huge hit that resonated with pretty much everyone.  I think there was also the fact that their previous  releases — the atmospheric The Unforgettable Fire from 1984, the excellent but far too short live album Under a Blood Red Sky from late 1983 and the amazing War from earlier that same year — were big favorites on MTV and rock radio.  And that classic performance at Live Aid in the summer of 1985 had given them a big ol’ boost as well.

I remember not being overly excited about the release at first.  Sure, I loved U2, but I wasn’t a hardcore dedicated fan yet.  In fact, I was more focused on the new Siouxsie & the Banshees cover album (Through the Looking Glass) that was released around the same time.  But I went ahead and bought it anyway, ordering the cassette from the BMG Music Club, and deemed it worthy of repeated listens.

It wasn’t until that summer, around the release of the third single “Where the Streets Have No Name” that the album really clicked with me.  I’d started hearing more deep cuts from the album being played on WAAF, WAQY and other New England radio stations as well.  The drifting beauty of “One Tree Hill”,  the barely restrained anger of “Bullet the Blue Sky”, the pastoral melancholy of “Red Hill Mining Town” (the last of which reminded me of the dead-end feeling I was having about my home town at the time).

The album kicked off such a storm of excitement that their tour ended up being THE EVENT TO SEE.  Sadly, I would never get to see them live until nearly ten years later for the PopMart Tour, but my sisters did get to see them down in Worcester for this tour, much to my extreme jealousy.  Numerous parts of the tour stops were filmed for what would end up being the documentary Rattle and Hum, released in 1988 complete with soundtrack and new songs recorded on the road.  And a little over ten years later, they’d resurrect and re-record one of the b-sides for “Streets” and release it as a single for one of their greatest hits mixes:

I’d revisit the album numerous times over the years: a constant soundtrack during my post-college writing years and even more during the Belfry years; talking with my then-girlfriend about how the album was sequenced into a specific flow of sound and mood; a constant replay when the band released their (almost) entire discography on iTunes; while working on my Walk in Silence project.  I’ve never grown tired of it.

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Thirty years on, this album is still considered a classic.  U2 themselves are celebrating its anniversary with a tour of North America and Europe, playing the album in its entirety.  I doubt I’ll be going when they stop by Santa Clara in late May, but I’m sure it’ll be a fantastic show.  [For a brief moment I thought hey, maybe they’ll come to Outside Lands!…and then I realized they’ll be wrapping up their European leg about the same time so I doubt they’ll be in the mood for trekking all the way back to California by that time.  Wishful thinking, though!]

U2’s Songs of Innocence: High Expectations and Low Opinions

Let’s get my first thought out of the way:

Music fans are a fickle lot.

Hear me out–I’ll admit right now that I’m one of them. I too have been one of those fans who brushed off a new release by a band because I couldn’t help but compare it to one of their previous successes and find myself less than impressed. The Cure’s Wild Mood Swings. Ben Folds Five’s Whatever and Ever Amen. Depeche Mode’s Exciter. Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile. REM’s Monster. And pretty much anything U2 recorded after Achtung Baby. See a theme here? Hell, even the reviews for The Beatles (aka the White Album) were mixed at first.

Granted, follow-up albums are damned hard to live up to for musicians, just like follow-up novels are for writers. How do you top your success? Do you even want to top it? Would you rather move laterally and go in a different direction? Take a chance and write/record Big Awesome Release: Part II? It’s the reason we have the “sophomore slump”, with a band trying to follow up their ridiculously popular debut with something, anything they can think of.

In the case of U2, they’ve pretty much been a sore subject for some fans. You’ve got the original fans who’ve loved them since War or earlier, and see The Joshua Tree as their crowning achievement. You’ve got the fans who love the original 80s output but felt Rattle and Hum was their Let It Be, where they disappeared down their own navels and lost track of themselves. You’ve got the fans who heard Achtung Baby and thought that it was what the 90s were supposed to sound like. Anything after that…? You’re either a passive fan, a completist, or just have bad taste. After the dithering Zooropa and the electronica misstep of Pop, they just lost all relevance and became that band VH1 played incessantly. They’d become music for yuppies.

And of course, there’s the ubiquitous Bono, rubbing elbows with all the leaders of every country on Earth. Fans started to despise him just for being the bearer of peace, trying to be the next coming of Jesus or something. Didn’t bother me any, but I guess for some, the higher you go, the more irritating you get.

Another admittance: I actually liked Pop at the time. Sure, it really hasn’t aged all that well and it has many weak spots, but I liked what they were trying to do with it. I also have a bit of a prejudice with the album, because it was one of the many I played incessantly while writing The Phoenix Effect at the time. It holds a place in my heart because I relate it to my writing sessions down in my parents’ basement all those years ago. It was also the tour in which I FINALLY got to see them live, after my sisters had gone to see them multiple times on their bigger tours.

But after that? It took me awhile to warm up to their music. I did like All That You Can’t Leave Behind, but there was something missing that kept me from outright loving it. It may have been that it was a decidedly introspective album; instead of the blistering and sometimes overbearing rock, it focused on melody and ambience. “Beautiful Day” is an excellent song, but can anyone else remember another track from that album, aside from that one about Bono’s dad? Thought not. And the follow-up albums took longer and longer to come out–four for How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, five for No Line On the Horizon, and five for the new one, Songs of Innocence. We had some greatest hits compilations popping up in between and an odd cover/duet with Green Day doing an old Saints track for the Super Bowl. If they weren’t taking time off or working on their own personal projects, they were selling out. They’re not relevant because they take too long to release new music. They’re not popular anymore because they haven’t recorded Achtung Tree II. Your mom and dad like them now. You just can’t win, I guess.

I bring all this up because of all of the noise that’s surrounded U2’s newest release this past week. They’d hinted for a while now that a new album would be forthcoming sooner or later but never gave any specifics, but this past Tuesday they surprise-released the new album in the most amazing and unexpected way: completely for free (for a limited time) for anyone who has iTunes. In fact, you already have it on your iCloud, all you need to do is download it, no strings attached. Apple and U2 are basically saying “here, have fun!”

And just as unexpectedly, there’s a shockingly large amount of music listeners and non-fans who are absolutely incensed that it was given to them for free “without permission”.

This is rich, coming from a music era that got nailed pretty damned hard a few years back when you could pretty much download any album for free through filesharing sites and fans felt no guilt in doing so, but I digress.

To put it bluntly, again: music fans are a fickle lot. The overwhelming response (not including the typical “U2 Sucks” and its varying iterations) seems to be that people are angry at being forced to take an album they don’t want. To be honest, it’s no different than the sample mp3s you find when you upload your new mp3’s software, or the prepackaged apps you find on your Samsung phone. It’s there for your use and download if you want it. No one’s forcing you to listen or play around with it. I can understand the frustration for those who set their iPhones to constantly sync up with whatever’s on their iCloud and suddenly find an album there, but that’s easily rectified with a few steps. As far as I know, one album won’t make a significant dent in your data plan. No worse than buttdialing or forgetting to disconnect from the internet and leaving it on all night.

Part of me wants to think that this is part and parcel of social media’s penchant for righteous indignation at the drop of a hat. [Sure, some indignation is justified, I’m not talking about those instances.] How dare you give me something I don’t want? You’re trying to take over my phone! You’re pushing a product at me that I despise! You can’t tell me what to like! And so on. It’s what I call surface emotion: the instinctual reaction to something we don’t like, and treating that as what we perceive to be the truth. Apple and U2 forced an album on me, so therefore they must suck and be the most horrible company and band in the world. It’s gone so far that even established music reviewers see the album with a tainted eye, immediately thinking of it as craptastic drivel. [And how dare Bono even breathe the name Joey Ramone, let alone use his name in a title of a song! Blasphemy!]

Sure, that may be stretching it a bit, but in the process, this indignation is obscuring the honest personal review of the album. Personally, after a few listens I feel this is one of their best late-period albums. In fact, it’s probably on my Top 5 of 2014 right now, right up there with Beck’s Morning Phase and Interpol’s El Pintor. I say this now because I’ve listened to music closely and intently for so long now that I’m able to listen to a band’s release on its own merit now. The record may not be up to the standards of its predecessors, but taken on its own it’s an excellent release. Songs of Innocence holds vibrant energy that’s been missing or not completely present in their past few albums. The melodies are more memorable this time out, and the production work is tighter and cleaner than many of their previous albums. [And “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is an excellent opening track–the mix of Irish reel and lyrics about hearing punk for the first time is a brilliant move. Take that, Sasha Frere-Jones!]

No band can, or should, be expected to consistently “top” themselves, nor should they feel the need to hit it out of the park every single time. U2 has been a top-selling band for nigh on thirty years now. I think it’s time we take them at surface level instead of as the gods we think they think they are.