There is no other band in the world like U2. Over the course of their previous four records, U2 has demonstrated a command of their intense, exciting sound like no other band before. Only The Who, in their Who's next/Quadrophenia period could claim to have such an unique style. And U2 have had their sonic ideas from their first single. The latest U2 album, The Unforgettable Fire, examines a seemingly different facet of U2, but only the angle differs; the band remains constant.
U2's 1980 debut, Boy exploded off of the turntable and straight into my heart. The "widescreen" production, and layers of guitars contained the perfect musical antidote to the New Romantic synth-pop movement then burgeoning in the U.K. With lead singer Paul "Bono" Hewson's impassioned voice leading the way over David "The Edge" Evans' soaring guitar lines, Larry Mullen Jr.'s booming drums and Adam Clayton's rich bass, Boy, and the follow-up, October, introduced to the world the band and producer Steve Lillywhite's "cinematic panavision" (as Bono called it) sound.
Last year's War album featured subtle changes. The sound was tougher and more percussion-oriented. It still had the big Steve Lillywhite production, but the music was harsher and clunkier. It was, however, still undeniably U2, and when War broke on album rock airwave, I wonder how many people felt ripped off by the fact that rock radio ignored the first two albums. Now, of course, those radio stations play "I Will Follow" and "Gloria" as if they'd been playing them all along.
The Unforgettable Fire is U2's most difficult album to date, and one of the major reasons is the production team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. They've added synthesizer and orchestral coloration and changed the overall production strategy. While Lillywhite seperated each instrument in the mix, creating wide spaces in the band's music, Eno and Lanois take a different tack. They mesh the guitar, bass, drums and atmospheric synth into one shimmering whole focusing on the music's center, rather than the (no pun intended) edges. In addition, the use of repetition -- guitar riffs, drum patterns -- creates an hypnotic effect within the music.
This isn't so radical. U2 has always had an atmospheric, hypnotic side to their music, going all the way back to "An Cat Dubh" from Boy. In the past, this part of their sound was used for contrast with the uptempo guitar blast-offs. What makes The Unforgettable Fire seemingly so different is that the atmospheric side of U2 is the focus and the uptempo guitar blast-offs are the contrast.
So what do they release as the first single? An untempo guitar blast-off. "Pride (In The Name of Love)" is the closest thing to the old U2 here. It's chock-full of the Edge's trademark chuggachuggachugga echo rhythm guitar and much of the appeal lies in Larry's drumroll explosions announcing the next part of the song.
"Pride" is the cornerstone of a first side that contains most of the best songs on the album. "A Sort of Homecoming," the lead-off track, isn't specifically a rouser, but when Bono sings "No spoken words/just a scream" and demonstrates how that scream sounds, the song hits hard. It also gives a hint of who the star of the record is.
This is Bono's album, especially because The Edge is turned down for most of it. Now in his early twenties, Bono has developed into one of the best singers in rock -- a shouter supreme who is capable of subtlety. He also projects true emotion, probably because he believes every word he is singing. He cares so much about his words, he wants the listener to feel them as strongly as he does. Bono's singing is what saves the lower-key tracks like "Promenade" and "MLK," though his on-the-spot improvising doesn't rescue "Elvis Presley and America," the weakest song on this album. Despite a strong acoustic sound, reminiscent of Led Zeppelin III (right down to Bono's Robert Plant-like vocals), "Elvis Presley and America" meanders for far too long to be effective. It was a great idea, but the execution wasn't there.
Luckily, much of The Unforgettable Fire is well-executed. "Wire" starts off with a guitar riff rolling and tumbling headlong into a morass of special effects and percussion. Given the way it glides in and out of its chorus, I betcha it will be a live favorite. The title track doesn't really get going until the two glow-in-the-dark notes that introduce the chorus. The production on this track, is interesting, as Eno/Lanois bury the string under the percussion and maroon synth so that the huge bish-bash orchestral climax is more of an object of study than an overpowering emotional experience.
The production increases the impact of "Bad," the strongest (i.e. my favorite) thing here. Rolling drums and bass with Eno's keyboards shining and weaving in and around the echoing guitar makes the music irrestible. Meanwhile, up top, Bono sings against futility: "To let it go/and so to fade away" and screams: "I'm wiiiiiide awake!!" Dramatic and powerful.
So I like The Unforgettable Fire, which is exactly what you might expect, since I've enjoyed their music from the start and U2 has been my favorite current band (except when I succumb to occasional R.E.M. fits) for a couple of years. But I can see that if the inevitable backlash is going set it, this is where it's going to start. Given the Eno/Lanois production, and Bono's usual lyrical conceits (do words like "tonight" and "surrender" ring any bells?), I wouldn't be surprised if someone dubs this album More Songs About Jesus and Peace.
But that's OK, with this particular band, I'm well past the point of caring what anybody else thinks. U2 is the best rock and roll band on the planet and nothing on The Unforgettable Fire does anything to change that.
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This document HTMLized 15 August 2001
I was listening to Magnetic Fields -- 69 Love Songs