Sunday, September 14, 2014

U2 Ranked - #10 - #1

#10 – “Bad”
You know, it wasn’t, obviously, planned that I would finish this series off the same week U2 finally released their new album, their first new album in five years. But the confluence has a nice kind of symmetry. Yes, it means there will have to be an addendum to the series to place the eleven new songs on Songs of Innocence, as well as the newer “Ordinary Love” and “Invisible,” in context with this ranking, but there’s a nice cadence to the finishing up the ranking of the old as we get new music. I can say this, though. I’ve listened to Songs of Innocence probably 15 – 20 times this week, and am very much liking it. But I would be very surprised if any of those eleven tracks knocked off any of the songs I am about to list.

So – “Bad.” I first came to The Unforgettable Fire’s “Bad” through the live version on Rattle & Hum, the film, not the album, where it forms a sort of centerpiece to the movie. Shot in black and white it’s a moody, wonderful recording of the song. And this makes sense, given that “Bad” was a live staple for a number of years. “Bad” is also almost the purest U2 song imaginable. By this, I mean that, as I have discussed numerous times in this series, there is a side of U2 that is very much a non-songwriting side, a side where, were you to put the notes on sheet music and run them into a computer to spit out the arrangement it would sound almost comically simple. There is something about the alchemy of the way the Edge’s effects work with the pulse of Larry and Adam’s drums that takes what are on paper very simple musical ideas and makes them into something much more.

This is the kind of song “Bad” is. For almost the entire song, the Edge plays this incredibly simple riff, really just two chords, with the guitar chugging away underneath and a high chiming tone ringing at the end of every measure. It’s a patient, unrushed song, and Bono’s lyrics of alienation and loneliness, as simple as the music, work beautifully. “If you twist and turn away/If you tear yourself in two again/If I could, yes I would/If I could, I would let it go.” It’s a mesmerizing song, and when the chorus finally lets go, with those falsetto “ooh-oohs, it’s just magic.

#9 – “Love Is Blindness”
U2 gets tagged as “dad rock,” these days—I read it just this week in some criticism of the new album. And they also get tagged as kind of mindlessly optimistic, all about uplift and soaring anthems of hope and redemption and sunshine and puppy dogs.

Achtung Baby’s “Love Is Blindness” starts with a solo, funereal organ, repeating a very simple, descending, then rising melody. Then Larry and Adam come in, with a slow, despairing rhythm. Then, over low piano chords Bono sings:

Love is blindness, I don't want to see
Won't you wrap the night around me?
Oh, my heart, love is blindness.

As the verses come, instruments and textures are added, lowly reverbing guitar, low triads. And then the bridge (a bridge—even though there has been no chorus—or has there been nothing but a repeated chorus? Are those choruses or verses?), the music shifts slightly, we get some classic chord changes buried in the piano, and then these lyrics:

A little death without mourning
No call and no warning
Baby, a dangerous idea
That almost makes sense.

This is a dark, dark, despairing, and sorrowful song about suicide, about the loss of hope and will one can feel in the wake up lost love. That chilly bridge is then followed by maybe my second-favorite Edge solo. The way I remember reading about it back in the day was that Bono jokingly challenged the famously minimalist Edge to come up with a solo that was only one note. This haunting, jagged, heart-rending performance is the result.

This is dark, despairing music. And it is the song U2 used to close the ZooTV tours. THIS is the note that they sent those arena and stadium audiences out on. Remember that the next time someone makes fun of how U2 only has that one mode of uplift. Play them this song.

#8 – “Pride (In the Name of Love)”
OK—I didn’t say they didn’t record anthems. This song is famously about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., although, as is typically the case with Bono, it could really be about lots of other things—the reference to the assassination date is the only specific line tying the song to King. But what a song it is. There’s that iconic, uplifting riff, and the way the song opens with a series of chords that sound like bells ringing out victory. And there’s that simple solo, the repeated lines. And there’s, above all else, Bono’s youthful insistence on writing, and then singing, that goofily high vocal line. “In the name of love.” That high, open note on that “name”? That note IS U2.

#7 – “Beautiful Day”
It’s hard to believe that this song is 14 years old. While I was never one to write off Pop as any kind of failure, the album’s and tour’s less-than-stellar reception clearly spooked the band, and when they returned it was with a song that could lazily be written off as easy, or pandering. “Beautiful Day” is anything but. And the ubiquity it would enjoy, even if it was never a huge hit on the charts, is kind of astounding for a band in its third decade of making music. The opening teases you with its slow-burn, the singing over those echoing piano chords, and then the chorus comes and all four members of the band erupt and . . . well, it’s just magic. This is a really a remarkable song, and it contains some of Bono’s better lyrics as well. The poetry in the lyrics for the bridge is worth looking back on:

See the world in green and blue
See China right in front of you
See the canyons broken by cloud
See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out
See the bedouin fires at night
See the oil fields at first light
See the bird with a leaf in her mouth
After the flood all the colours came out
It was a beautiful day
A beautiful day
Don't let it get away

It’s a simple sentiment, of course. “It’s a beautiful day, don’t let it get away.” But that’s OK. That’s needed.

#6 – “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
When people say U2 is a “political” band, this is the song they are likely thinking of. A straightforward song about a bloody bombing in Ireland, it wears its politics on its sleeve.

Broken bottles under children's feet
Bodies strewn across the dead-end street.
But I won't heed the battle call
It puts my back up, puts my back up against the wall.

And yet it’s easy to forget, given the anger in the playing and the lyrics and in the singing, that it is a song of peace. “I won’t heed the battle call.”

I came to this song through the live version on the Under a Blood Red Sky EP. And it’s important to note how much this song has changed over the years. There’s the violin-accented, somehow jauntier original version. There’s the more muscular original live version. There’s the Rattle & Hum version, my favorite, which lets the first two verses play out with just the Edge playing that simple riff, no drums and no bass, before bringing the full band in in all of its furious glory. And there’s the Sarajevo live version, which keeps the full band at bay for the entire song, and turns it into a devastating Edge solo performance. And throughout all these iterations the song never loses its power. It’s a gorgeous piece of songwriting that never gets stale. 

#5 – “Acrobat”
This song, the song on Achtung Baby that leads into that final devastating statement that is “Love Is Blindness,” has never been played live. I don’t know, maybe once. It’s a forgotten deep cut off of what may be U2s’ greatest album. And it’s one of the most amazing things they ever recorded. Skittish cymbals, feedback, a few guitar tones that sound like tuning up, and then the drums start kicking in, with this wonderful rhythm that ends each phrase in a big, meaty triplet—boom, boom, boom—alongside a furious helicopter riff from the Edge that rises and falls. Over this musical maelstrom, Bono sings of betrayal and loss.

When I first met you girl, you had fire in your soul.
What happened to your face of melting snow
Now it looks like this!

There’s religion here too—it’s not only a woman that’s betrayed him:

Yeah, I'd break bread and wine
If there was a church I could receive in.
'Cause I need it now.

And that solo—oh, that guitar solo. It starts off like words getting stuck in the throat, sounds that furiously refuse to coalesce into words, and then the guitarist finds his voice and spins out a beautiful, angry descending line as the drums clatter and crash behind it. This really may be Larry’s finest moment on records—those drums, and that boom-boom-boom really make the song and drive it somewhere special. Such a remarkable song, and so forgotten.

#4 – “One”
Achtung Baby is heavily featured in this top ten, and with good reason. And here we have its finest statement, and U2’s finest ballad. Some see it as a wedding song. Some see it as an elegy for AIDS. Some see it as song of loss. Whatever you see in its Rorschach blurs, I bet it moves you. A simple chord progression, really, and yet so moving, so sublime. And in the end, the message that we are all in this together is hard to miss. “We get to carry each other, carry each other . . . one.” That “get” may be the most important word Bono has ever written. “Get.” Not “have.” Or “need.” Or “want.’ “Get.” It’s a privilege—it’s what makes us human—that we get to carry each other. I suspect if people know U2 in 100 years, it will be because of this song. 

#3 – “Walk On.”
And now we get All That You Can’t Leave Behind’s best statement. A tambourine, piano chords, and a whispering Bono:

And love is not the easy thing
The only baggage you can bring...
And love is not the easy thing....
The only baggage you can bring
Is all that you can't leave behind

And then? Glory. Guitar, bass, and drums, churning out a ringing, grasping figure that just takes my breath away—it’s those single notes reaching for the sky that kill me. And then some of Bono’s best singing over lyrics about a woman imprisoned in her home for the crime of wanting to speak for the people. And over the chorus we get that same reaching music—“walk on, walk on.”

What maybe I love the most, though, is how, after a wonderfully triumphant solo from the Edge, we get to the denouement, and these lyrics:

Leave it behind
You've got to leave it behind
All that you fashion
All that you make
All that you build
All that you break
All that you measure
All that you steal
All this you can leave behind

Look at that last line. All that you can leave behind. Not “can’t.” So simple, yet so profound. A song about forgiving the unforgivable. Anthemic rock at its best. 

#2 – “Please”
It’s not many U2 songs that I wish had jazz bands covering them. But listen to this song. Listen to that beat Larry hits, that groove he settles into, and tell me it’s not jazz. This is a moody, unsettled song, with none of the assurance of “Walk On.” You can hear it in the murky, subdued guitars. The bass and drums drive this sucker. There is a mood here, a tone, that U2 never caught again, and it’s a shame that the “failure” of Pop tainted this remarkable song. Elvis Costello does a great acoustic cover of this song, and he is on record as saying it was the song that really made him stand up and take notice of what U2 was doing, and respect them as songwriters. This is denser songwriting than U2 usually attempts; more murky, less black-and-white songwriting than U2 usually attempts, and more, frankly, sophisticated songwriting than U2 usually attempts. It’s really, really a shame that they abandoned this vein.

#1 – “Where the Streets Have No Name”
You knew it was coming. What else could it be? It’s no accident that this song has survived as a live staple for so long. It’s a stunning achievement. Almost symphonic in its build and effect, it’s U2’s masterpiece. That patient, beautiful opening, with the slow organ unfolding like the sunrise. And then that chiming guitar figure starts, slowly, softly, until it takes over and the bass and drums sneak in, until with a crash of cymbals the whole band is together. It’s 1:45 in before we hear Bono, and it’s his best vocal performance ever. Just impassioned, confident, and assured.

I wanna run, I want to hide
I wanna tear down the walls
That hold me inside.
I wanna reach out
And touch the flame
Where the streets have no name.

I’ve been in arenas and stadiums for this song, and it’s a transformative experience each time. It’s everything music can do. It’s my desert island song, my sustenance, my lifeblood. It’s maybe my favorite piece of art ever.

Until Whenever

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

U2 Ranked - #20 - #11

#20 – “Stay (Faraway, So Close)”
The top 20. Here we go.
I’ve written several times throughout the course of this series about the dichotomy between the dominant side of U2—the one that is very much not a traditional songwriting rock band—and the other side of the band that, at odd times, nonetheless comes out with songs that sound very “traditionally” written and composed. My 20th-favorite U2 song is one of those songs. This ballad off of Zooropa is easily the song that has lasted the longest off of that set, and with good reason. It’s been a live staple and a centerpiece acoustic song on a few tours, and its almost Dylan-esque simplicity and more-straightforward lyrics give it a timeless feel. I’m surprised it’s not covered more often.

A simple riff on the guitar and a steady beat on the drums usher us in and Bono starts his story:

Green light, Seven Eleven
You stop in for a pack of cigarettes
You don't smoke, don't even want to
Hey now, check your change

It’s a sad story (and yes, this is U2, I am using the term “story” VERY loosely), and as it unfolds there’s that steady pulse of a riff underpinning everything. But when it comes to the chorus, things lift—not in the traditional U2 way, with an anthemic ringing guitar part, but in a more-subdued way, with a rising chorus that the guitar remains under, not over. This is a song that features some of Bono’s best lyric writing—“And, if you shout, I'll only hear you.” That right there is a candidate for his best line ever. This is a very un-U2 song and yet it works so very, very well as a U2 song. Does that make any sense?

#19 - “I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For”
And here we have U2’s other U.S. #1, also off of The Joshua Tree. I will be honest. If it weren’t for the gospel choir-backed version of this from the Rattle & Hum album, this wouldn’t be quite so high on my list. But that rendition is so transcendental that it makes me love the song just that much more. That this has always been a bit of a gospel song is no secret, but that live version really brings the praise elements out.

The first verse proceeds more or less as it does in the recorded version, with Bono’s impassioned vocals over that simple, but elemental, riff. Then Bono sings the chorus. “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Then the choir repeats it. Chills. Over the next verse (still just a tambourine and that riff behind them), the choir does more call-and-response with Bono. Then the full band comes in and we get some gospel solos before Bono joins back in. The mix of the band and choir is just so delicious and so right—it really brings out the best in the song. Finally, at the end, we get the choir on its own, with no instruments behind them, in an extended finale, and it is just so joyous, so full of life and love it knocks you over.

None of this is to say that the album version is anything less than a great song, and I do very much love the production on that version, with the way the Edge’s guitar riff has that tight, drum-head of a sound in the beginning and how Adam’s bass lopes behind the guitar, pushing things forward. It’s just a gorgeous piece of songwriting all around. 

#18 – “Breathe”
No Line on the Horizon’s penultimate track, this is a barnburner of a rock song, with an energy the band almost never quite captures in its songs. I thought this song would just slay live, but audience reaction seemed  . . . tepid. It is beyond me. An awesomely tribal drum beat and a buzzing guitar build tension for a while, almost 30 seconds in fact, before the dual piano-guitar riff comes in. Then we get hit with some lyrics from Bono that always for me had a bit of a Paul Simon feel: “Coming from a long line of travelling sales people on my mother's side/I wasn't gonna’ buy just anyone's cockatoo.” I mean, come on.

But what really makes the song is that chorus, with its big, sweeping reach:

Every day I die again, and again I'm reborn
Every day I have to find the courage
To walk out into the street
With arms out
Got a love you can't defeat
Neither down or out
There's nothing you have that I need
I can breathe
Breathe now

This is a song that begs to be played loud, and the way the Edge’s riff works with the piano just works for me on so many levels. A great, great U2 song that never landed the way I assumed it would. So puzzling. 

#17 – “Mercy”
“Mercy” is an odd duck of a song in that it was never actually officially released. A very late cut from How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, it quickly circulated online having actually been released on some advance copies. It eventually did surface as a live song on the 360 tour, and even as an official recording on an EP from that tour. But I came to it on that bootleg, and that’s where I fell in love with it.’

This is the aughts version of “Bad”—and by that, I mean it’s an epic, long, soulful, and yearning song marked by the repetition of a very simple riff. Blender Magazine described it as "a six-and-a-half-minute outpouring of U2 at its most uninhibitedly U2-ish.” This is a very accurate description of this song, and a good indicator of why I love it as much as I do. There is a galloping bass line and that hypnotic riff and they carry a lot of weight, but there are also moments that have as much energy and chaos going on as “Exit” did live. It’s never been clear to me why such a remarkable song got cut, and I am very grateful that it leaked the way that it did. 

#16 – “Kite”
This lesser-known All That You Can’t Leave Behind cut is a gorgeous, aching song about parenthood and letting go. Not quite a ballad, it nonetheless is a slow, reflective song, with a strummed two-chord figure giving it a slightly folksy feel. The verse is quieter, and looks more inward, but with the chorus we get a beautiful aching melody to these lyrics:

I want you to know
That you don't need me anymore
I want you to know
You don't need anyone, anything at all
Who's to say where the wind will take you
Who's to know what it is will break you
I don't know which way the wind will blow
Who's to know when the time has come around
Don't wanna see you cry
I know that this is not goodbye

Big, high notes, impassioned singing—this is heart-on-its-sleeve U2, and if that kind of thing works on you, as it does on me, it just kills.

Then, after a piercing and simple Edge guitar solo we get a hair-raising bridge with Bono singing at the top of his range:

I'm a man, I'm not a child
A man who sees
The shadow behind your eyes

Goosebumps. Every time.

The song ends on a wonderful little denouement of a coda, with that strummed figure back to the foreground, as the passion simmers down. A lovely ending to one of U2’s most emotionally affecting songs. 

#15 – “Miss Sarajevo”
The Passengers album, an odd experiment of soundscapes that was basically a look at what would happen if Brian Eno were a full member of the band, yielded only one real lasting song, but it’s a doozy. This reflection on what passes for normal during war is an uncommonly tightly focused song for the band, with the simple lyrics questioning what daily activities make sense to soldier on with in a time of war, with the hook being an actual beauty pageant that took place during the war in Bosnia. The melody is wistful and beautiful, but subdued, with Bono’s lyrics almost whispered.

Is there a time for kohl and lipstick
Is there time for cutting hair
Is there a time for high street shopping
To find the right dress to wear?

Here she comes, heads turn around
Here she comes, to take her crown.

Then we come to the bridge, and guest vocalist Luciano Pavarotti lets loose with a gorgeous, operatic melody sung in Italian. The contrast between Bono’s subdued vocal and Pavarotti’s impassioned one is breathtaking, and takes what would have been a pleasant and moving U2 song and pushes it into being a classic. When the song turned up on a U2 tour, Bono would take that Italian vocal himself, and there are live versions you can listen to that are truly impressive displays of vocal discipline and power. If you had told me after the Pop tour that Bono would, ten years later, be capable of singing like that, I wouldn’t have believed you. 

#14 – “City of Blinding Lights”
Is this song kind of transparently an attempt to replicate the arena-lifting epic anthem that is “Where the Streets Have No Name”? Yes. Does it equal its obvious forbearer? No. Is it nonetheless an uplifting, big U2 song that takes my breath away? Yes it is.

A ringing guitar riff yields to declamatory piano, emphatic guitar chords, rolling drums and then the main theme, a beauty of an Edge line at once both wistful and hopeful. This was a great live song, more powerful than the album version, with its ready-made chorus of “Oh, you look so beautiful tonight,” and served as a stellar tour opener. If you are not a U2 fan this is not the song that will change your mind. It is very U2, But if you are? Catnip. 

#13  -“All I Want Is You”
A soft, soft guitar. A whispered vocal.

You say you want diamonds on a ring of gold
You say you want your story to remain untold.
All the promises we make
From the cradle to the grave
When all I want is you.

And then a ringing, pure guitar figure echoing away in the distance.

This, the final song on the underappreciated Rattle & Hum, is as stately a U2 song as exists. Its reliance on strings (supplied by Beach Boys cohort Van Dyke Parks), and that methodical verse, with its repeated “You say, you need”s, add up to a specific mood that doesn’t really fit existing U2 moods and forms. My favorite part, though, is Edge’s masterful, multi-tracked guitar solo, easily my favorite of all U2 guitar solos. It’s just a breathtaking achievement in the way it builds and builds in intensity and power, over a full 50 or so seconds, which by U2 guitar solo standards is forever. And then we get the almost two-minute outro, during which the strings slowly take over completely until it’s all strings, doing this spacey, beautiful melody to finish the song off. Gorgeous. 

#12 – “Window in the Skies”
I never would have guessed my 12th-favorite U2 song of all time would be a new track written for a best-of collection. This song, produced by Rick Rubin (who had been slated to work more extensively with the band in a move that never panned out), is a big, joyful burst of noise, a soulful and delightful expression of happiness. The song has big, crashing piano chords, ethereal “ah”s, 50s-bass, and beautiful lyrics about the beginning of things.

The shackles are undone
The bullets quit the gun
The heat that's in the sun
Will keep us when there's none
The rule has been disproved
The stone it has been moved
The grave is now a groove
All debts are removed

This is an infectious song, with its big, Phil Spector-like sound and old-school energy and it sounds noting like any other U2 song I have ever heard. 

#11 – “Moment of Surrender”
This is the centerpiece of No Line on the Horizon, and it is a stunning piece of songwriting and production. Slow and majestic, this is a monument of a song, with a simply astonishing vocal from Bono, singing in a range he by all rights should have abandoned years ago.

It starts with a slow and steady drum beat and some synth sketching out a soulful, melancholy melody. This builds to a crescendo and then we get a confident, assured bass line, some piano chords, and then the vocal. Bono is singing all the way up at the top of his range here, right from the very start, in a canny move—the high note isn’t the climax, it’s the starting point. The vocal melody is a simple, declamatory one, pretty in its quiet form. After three verses we finally get the chorus, and it’s a stunner, just a gorgeous melody set to a simple and poetic lyric:

At the moment of surrender
I folded to my knees
I did not notice the passers-by
And they did not notice me

The Edge sings along here and the combination of their voices is beautiful. The second chorus is longer, with additional lyrics, and after it we get a pushing piano and guitar duet that yields to a bluesy, patient, and careful guitar solo, with not a note wasted. This yields to another iteration of the chorus:

I was speeding on the subway
Through the stations of the cross
Every eye looking every other way
Counting down 'til the Pentecost

At the moment of surrender
Of vision of over visibility
I did not notice the passers-by
And they did not notice me

This is a song of loneliness on a modern age, of disconnect. It is beautiful and sad and big and grand. I love this song.

Until Whenever