At the risk of pissing some people off, I needed to write this piece. Needed to!
Over the years, I had developed an increasing shadow of U2 disregard. It might even have bordered on dislike. And I need to be careful how I write this so it doesn’t become misconstrued as a “hater” piece. It’s far from that.
When the new album by U2 came into controversy over its distribution, I willingly listened to it because, over the years, I always hoped that we could get the U2 that we grew to love back in the late ’70s, and ’80s, back to a semblance of that quality.
Now, before I go further, let me explain this clearly: I am not an opponent of creativity or maturity, Nor am I an opponent of art as it is presented. I like when bands get better. Listen to the holy trilogy of Boy, October, and War, and you find a marked difference between those and the following The Unforgettable Fire. And then, The Joshua Tree changed it up more. As did Achtung Baby. And on.
I have listened to Songs Of Innocence over 50 times. OVER 50 times. That’s more than I gave their last two a listen combined. On the last ten listens, I compared it in every way to their earlier works basing each song on a chill factor. The lyrics, the music, the way the song is presented, the overall quality. Unfortunately, I failed to find one song from Songs Of Innocence with ability to create a chill within me. That made me sad because I want them to succeed. Perhaps my personal opinion of several things within the U2 camp colored my opinion of them over time, but it’s the same principle I usually apply to my other favorites over time as well (right, Adam? Bill B?).
Song for song, there’s not one track on Songs Of Innocence with the same power as “Bad”, “Pride (In the Name Of Love)”, “The Unforgettable Fire”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, “With Or Without You”, or even those brilliant outtakes from The Unforgettable Fire (“The Three Sunrises”, “Love Comes Tumbling”). My thing is this, eventually you lose your philosophy, your sense of what is important, when you reach that stage where you are suddenly above everyone, even if not by choice.
But I did rediscover something in this small journey. I was still in love with U2. In listening to their earlier songs, my heart swelled with the beauty of their music, the depth of their words, and the greatness of their music. It’s what made them who they are.
I just needed to remind myself, and perhaps others, that U2 is still high on my list of great bands. It’s just that now, they feel irrelevant, in “a dry and waterless place”.
“And if the mountains should crumble
Or disappear into the sea
Not a tear, no not I.”
18 thoughts on “Wide Awake, I’m Wide Awake…I’m Not Sleeping!”
Or maybe it’s even simpler than that. Like a magician, a band has a “bag or tricks” which makes them stand out. Once you’ve seen all their tricks it’s hard to get excited watching them perform variations of those tricks. And then there is the fact that once they get rich, their perspective changes and that changes the music and lyrics. I’ll just say this, there is one band that I still find can give me those chills after 40 years and that is Rush. I still think their best albums were in the 76-82 years but I always find a couple of songs on each new album that hit that nerve. I hope that everyone has at least one band that they feel that way about.
Agreed. I was underwhelmed too. It wasn’t that it was bad music, I just don’t see me pulling if off the shelf a lot. Joe
err…isn’t it better just to burn out and not fade away!
Matt-There are two things that stand out to me when I think about U2. When they made the switch from the first 3 albums and went into the atmospheric recordings with Eno/Lanois, it really made you stop and really consider that this wasn’t just a good band, it was a very important band because they had the ability to metamorphose themselves without losing the ability to concurrently make a leap in quality all-around.
When they decided to cut down the myth of self-importance and The Joshua Tree, they again made the leap in unexpectedly rising to another level with another radical departure with Achtung Baby.
Putting Zooropa aside (which I felt was a successful continuation of the Achtung Baby album), I’ve always felt that Pop was a major disaster which shouldn’t have been released until it was completely finished. I’ve always had this thought in the back of my mind that the Pop album recording experience and the rough start to the Popmart Tour ran a lot more deep within the band than they’ve ever let on and that they’ve been gun-shy about future albums ever since. In other words, they may be a case of a band who over-woodsheds.
With each successive album, they’ve almost become a different version of Bruce Springsteen in one regard. They’ve been releasing albums that are starting points, but not definitive statements. All of the classic albums that you mentioned can stand up as a singular recorded statement. Each of those albums also contained songs which also took on a life of their own when performed live. Only until they’ve decided which songs from each successive album to perform live do they seem to spring themselves to another vital life.
What I’m getting from the Songs Of Innocence album is really strange compared to other ones. It is a dichotomy of which I don’t see in some of the other later albums. They wrote what I feel is a songwriters album (which was explained by Bono in a recent interview), but that the music does not appear to have the transcendent lift of the old albums. I like the musical chances which were taken within the framework of the songwriting. But I’m still not getting as great a lift as the old albums. It will be pointedly observant of fans to see what kind of a life some of these songs take on when the new tour rolls around.
I don’t know. Perhaps I’m way off-base here. I got this impression after the first time I heard it. It just appears to me that the most successful risk-taking has come under the guidance of Eno/Lanois. You and I are likely cut from the same mold, Matt. I’m a little more forgiving of the album than you are. It isn’t going to stop me from seeing them this time around.
As you know, the private little communications we’ve had back and forth about how the production was going and various other internal matters concerning the band have clearly been indicative of the fact that U2 cannot seem to take, what used to be for them, a normal approach to an album anymore. And like you, I still love them too.
Again Matt, I don’t know. You know how a lot of us can say that a lot of our favorite albums were recorded in imperfect rooms and a sweet spot was found which made the albums turn out so magical for us? Maybe U2 needs to find that imperfect room and just make some noise there without sounding so perfectly constructed? But gee, man. I could say that about a ton of the old guys can’t I?
Expressed well. But, as you said, you’re more forgiving. I hold Springsteen to this same standard. They (U2,Springsteen, etc) certainly have great beginnings. But when it comes to producing the chilling content after a point, there seems to be skilled writing with no intensity. I blame money and riches. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t fault them for the money. They deserve it. But it’s few people’s fault when the magic doesn’t seem to ring true as it had in the past. U2 and Springsteen, in my own opinion, have been phoning it in for quite some time. It may work for some; it doesn’t work for me. And yet, I keep hoping…
I could not agree more. Ironic. I got more chills and joy from Robert Plant’s excellent and very personal latest effort than from the last 3 U2 cd’s combined and seeing him with 2000 people in NYC having such a great time with the music, the band, the crowd made me remember U2 the club band who was electric in their early venues. This u2 album is worth what Apple charged us….$0.00
As a fan of classic rock, I still buy up the new albums of Paul McCartney, Robert Plant, Rush, Kiss, U2, Aerosmith, AC/DC and others. I’m always hopeful that they will each produce another classic that will “wow” me. I can honestly say that I can manage to find a song or two from each that I really enjoy, but I wouldn’t say any truly “wow” me. I think the current state of the music industry (non-support of the classic acts) has caused me to lower my expectations, so I’m rarely disappointed in the new music, just not bowled over by it. I think the bottom line is that these are the bands and artists that I grew up with and I just don’t want to let go. If the Beatles had not broken up, I would have bought the albums they produced in the mid ’70s with the songs with a disco beat and the ones in the ’80s with the new wave sounding tracks. I know they would probably never had another Sgt. Pepper in them, but it would still be music made by my favorite band and that would have been ok by me.
The last great album from U2, that still finds playtime on my stereo, is Zooropa. The albums leading up to it were all a progression that showed a band developing and trying out new styles. After that, each album seemed to get progressively worse, as they were not exploring the boundaries of music and their own abilities. By the time “atomic bomb” came out, I had pretty much lost interest, but still had some hope left that they could pull out of the nose-dive that the band had been in for a decade. The album that had me get off of the “U2 bus” was “No line on the Horizon.” I don’t even think that I have ever listened to the album all the way through, it just bored me to tears. Since then, they have not gotten a penny mine (including re-issues).
It is sad to see such an great and influential band that put out such a spectacular series of varied albums in their earlier career “flame out” in such a horrendous way.
And, I must agree with “Bill B” (above) with his example of Rush, who have not suffered from the same “musical exhaustion” that many other bands have come to embrace. Even their most recent work, “Clockwork Angels”, was a daring and lengthy concept album that contains some excellent songwriting that gives me the “chill” Matt refers to in the article. However, going back to a recent article by Matt, it would have been an incredibly outstanding album if it was cut back to the best songs with a run-time of around 40 minutes (as is the case with their past couple of albums). I wonder if they have the capacity to try this in the future. Rush, in particular, could blow the rest of the musical world out of the water by concentrating on fewer, stronger songs (and a new producer/engineer – but that is just my bias) instead of trying to fill the entire capacity of a CD. However, I wouldn’t quite go as far as saying that the extra material on “CA” is filler – that material holds a middle ground, which is rather problematic in its own regard.
I am sure that we could also debate many other bands who originated in the ’70s and dissect their careers, to varying degrees of success, as their progress has continued through the years, but that would take a long time… (Anyone like to take a stab at Simple Minds and their journey? It is somewhat akin to what U2 has attempted, with a very different outcome.)
Good piece. Interestingly, while I love New Gold Dreams, and Sparkle In The Rain, I am very much pleased with their post work. I’m very interested in what their new album will be as it’s rumored to be similar to NGD, and SitR.
Like many of you, I’m a U2 fan. Even if they had released nothing after ‘The Joshua Tree’ they’d be one of the most successful rock bands ever so the fact that we got good albums like ‘Aching Baby’ amp; ‘Zooropa’ in the 90’s was just icing on the cake.
Sure the output from ‘Pop’ up until now has been devastatingly weak for their original fan base but there are some good ‘pop’ songs on those releases (lower case ‘pop’ to speak of the genre and not the LP) and they have sold pretty well, albeit to a different audience.
I’m not sure they can go back and claim their post-punk urgency as that ship has long since sailed for U2 (and everyone else for that matter) and the Euro-trash glory of early 90’s is probably out of reach for a bunch a 50+ year olds to tap into now. I’ve always said I’d like them to go back and try to duplicate what they did in the mid to late 80’s with ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ and ‘The Joshua Tree’. But to be honest, I’m fearful of that as well because if it’s bad it may ruin them for me.
As for this most recent record, it’s not great but it is better than the last couple. There is the occasional riff, bassline or drum passage that reminds me of classic U2 but it falls short overall. I’m sure the tour will be successful and I’ll likely attend the show if they come to my town. It will no doubt be a spectacle to enjoy but let’s face it, U2 have crossed that line where they no longer have to be innovative to be successful.
U2, like many bands that have been going for 30 or more years, started doing this when they were incredibly young and simply don’t know how to do anything else so the keep on keeping on. And while some of us who remember them from the beginning are disappointed with their newer records the singles seem to find an audience in this digital download era and they still sell well (even without bulk purchases from Apple) so there is no incentive for them to stop recording yet.
Well articulated piece. My biggest thing is not the times past, but what they could contribute to my life now. And they could. They started out being an attentive group, with well traveled philosophy and real situational thought. For me, that hasn’t gone away. I’m still as existential, and concerned about ourselves internally as I’ve ever been. Musically, while I don’t begrudge growth, they are good enough to create “chill-inducing” music even now. They just don’t. Otherwise, I would have left long ago.
There are bands that do this. Rush has been mentioned as one. Even today, I hear music that affect me deeply. U2 just has a big spotlight on them given their status. Problem is, while they can still generate interest (hence this article), they now feel like a horse they are beating themselves to produce what it likely no longer can. Even Bono admits to be fearful of irrelevance.
When Bono says, over the last two releases, that these newer albums are among the best things they have ever done, they foolishly raise the expectations for them. Again, I’m capable of being chilled by great music as music is still quite important to me. U2,if they had it in them, could do it again.
“When Bono says, over the last two releases, that these newer albums are among the best things they have ever done”
Don’t all older artists sing this same song every time they release a new album. Think of Aerosmith’s last album and how they claimed it was an attempt to reach back to the spirit of those first 4 albums. IMO it didn’t come close. It sounded pretty much like all their post 90’s releases.
I equate this with athletes who, even though the odds makers in Vegas say they have very low odds of winning, claim that they will prevail even though they are a dark horse. Have you ever heard any athlete in a pregame interview say “Well we are probably going to los,e and we don’t have much of a chance, but at least we showed up?”.
The point is that they have to believe that what they are about to release is their best because, most obviously they have to promote/sell it but secondly, if they didn’t believe in it no one else would either.
Imagine the band saying “Well, it’s not our best album and it probably won’t appeal to most of our fans, but at least we put something out”. Not only would that doom the probability of success but in would also imply that they just wasted six months of their life in the studio creating a piece of crap. No person wants to feel that way in any endeavor that they put so much effort into.
You are right, Bill. I just wish they’d shut up, and release the damn things. Let us judge their greatness. We’re going to anyway, right?
The other alternative would be for them to just say “screw it, we’re going on tour with all of our old stuff, take it or leave it.” The Who are pulling this trick out of the hat (again). Put out a greatest hits package and tour it with expensive tickets that’ll sell out anyhow. At least all the fans would not be disappointed with a bunch of aging rock stars who have lost the capacity to write relevant music.
If they need an excuse, an alternative might be to put out a four song EP of the best stuff to come out of a recording session, instead of a lengthy album of cutting floor rejects. Maybe even tack a couple of new songs onto the hits package, as is seen occasionally by other bands. Build a bit of the “we’re working on something that is actually good” mojo, while still keeping the record company happy and raking in the dough through touring and selling the singles. They would also drive up anticipation for a decent product down the road without burning themselves out writing filler material in the studio beforehand.
I love the new album! best thing I have heard from the band since A.Baby.
Read Lisa Robinson’s recollection of her U2 encounters in her new book…you’ll pretty much find all of your answers right there.
Writing this on a phone so it will be short, but The Unforgettable Fire is by far my favorite U2 album. It’s got all the band’s youthful energy but it marks a clear progression in their musical ability. Achtung Baby would be my second favorite. I agree with you Matt. I always want this band to succeed, but they seem to have gotten mired in densely layered soundscapes, effects pedals and Pro Tools. There’s just no life or fire in the new album. The last few for that matter. I wish they would go back to recording songs old school.
SOI is a solid album from an ‘ancient’ band. Herein lies the problem Matt; U2 will never solidly rest on their laurels, and in that regard they continue to chase the ever elusive tag of ‘relevancy’. Their time has come, and passed and for a band going on 40 years, and accumulating the accolades and success that a MEGA-Band like U2 have, well it’s a bitter pill to swallow.
What is really skewed is our ‘expectation’ that U2 is going to put out an album that ‘captures’ the moment. They are no longer in the moment, they had their moment. It’s kind of like Black Sabbath’s last album. Can anyone really say it was one of their finest, or even remember a tune on it (save the uber-fan)? U2, sadly, is in that category…Classic Rock….like it or not. They want to be more, and while that’s commendable their ship has sailed and so too have our expectations of what we want from them, and what they’re actually going to produce.
They are not ‘phoning it in’ they put a lot of time and effort into this album. It’s just times and tastes have changed, and while they chase those things, we, as older listeners, have a tough time accepting the musical landscape and might even find it contemptible that they are following that path. I LOVE U2, and I’ll be attending their shows next year, but even as a LONG time fan I know that U2 are a Legacy Act.
Comments are closed.