As I was pondering this topic I realized an interesting little fun fact - my top 5 U2 albums are all the ones with one word in the title - Boy, October, War, Zooropa and Pop. And my least favorites (i.e. everything this decade) all practically have sentences for titles.
But let's step back a bit. First off, I admit I did not go to their concert at Fed Ex Field last week with their super space-bug stage set. It looks really cool and all, but having to sit through all those mediocre new tracks just couldn't convince me to see the band play under the big bug. Something happened between All That You Can't Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. First they completely lost their ability to write great tunes. To turn a terrible phrase, Bomb was a total dud. I think I recommended just two tracks on the album when I reviewed it for WMUC, and one was "Vertigo" which is just "Elevation" all over again.
And then there's Bono. Sure he was always earnest, with the mullet and the white flag and the Live Aid and the song about refugees, but he crossed a line from earnest crusader to completely intolerable pain in the ass sometime in the mid '00s. I have no problem with celebrities voicing their political views, but good lord keep a balance between your art and your soapbox.
I'm not just going to slag off Paul Hewson for the rest of this blog post, though. I'm going to reminisce about the good times. The first three U2 albums are fascinating and still sound great thanks to the youthful vigor. The band came out of the deep pool of post-punk (Martin Hamnett produced their first EP) to make really anthemic rock. Their emergence, and much of their career seems to mirror R.E.M.'s. Both bands were trying to take post-punk and new wave to different places, and both succeeded almost immediately from a sonic perspective, even if the massive success took some time, and both seemed to take similar stylistic turns at their height of success in the '90s.
After the first three records, they got big, of course. I like plenty of songs on Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. But things got really interesting again with Zooropa, an album that started as a stopgap EP, and turned into a really fascinating artifact. "Stay" is one of the best songs they've ever written, both clever (in keeping with their '90s selves) and poignant. Then there are plenty of weird, sexy and wonderful songs like "Dirty Day" and "Numb" and "Lemon" and "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car." All of these songs seem to match the weird excess of the concerts they were performing during the Zoo TV tour.
Zooropa has gotten more love in retrospect, but most folks still seem to dislike Pop. The easy thing to say is that they rushed it to get it done in time for their tour, but there are still plenty of great songs on there. "Do You Feel Loved" and "Please" and "Gone" are as good as any rockers they wrote in the '90s.
After that album things have gone down hill again, at least to my ears. Maybe the new decade will bring one last blast of innovation. I wouldn't put it past them, any band who started out with the name Feedback can't be all bad.
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