Monday, July 28, 2014

U2 Ranked - #40-#31

#40 – “The Unforgettable Fire”
Strings and U2 are a rare mix. The Edge’s particular brand of effects-laden guitar work usually obviates the need for the sweep and grandeur rock artists often turn to strings to achieve. And yet there are a few songs for which the band has turned to some dramatic strings (real or synth?—my ears are too poor to tell. OK, probably synth.), and the title track off of The Unforgettable Fire is one. This is a moody song with a particularly interesting tone—not the anthemic joy or bigness of something like “Where the Streets Have No Name,” but not a ballad or rock song either. The song opens with quiet keyboard and guitar, a quick feedback chord echo, and then heavy, almost-ponderous bass and drums. There’s a sense of landscape to the music, open deserts and long treks. The sense of drama is added to at about the halfway mark, when the strings make a more overt appearance at the bridge, declaiming with authority a simple, but more overtly theatrical than usual for the band, melody—it’s almost like an Andrew Lloyd Weber moment. And then that mood is broken with some orchestra hits right off of an old Casio keyboard that lead into an elegiac passage that’s always stood out to me as a favorite melding of lyric and music: “And if the mountain should crumble/Or disappear into the sea/Not a tear, no not I.” The song ends with an interesting progression of chords in the strings that only pops into place just when you think the fade out is complete. This is a fascinating detour for the band, and very effective piece of composition. 

#39 – “Zoo Station”
I became a U2 fan right on the tail end of the Joshua Tree phenomenon. My fandom was enhanced and cemented by Rattle and Hum, both the movie and album, and so by the time 1991 came I had absorbed the band’s back catalog and was as familiar as any teen with the band’s “sound,” whatever that was at the time. So it was with no small amount of anticipation that I (and my sister, who I had dragged into my fandom with me), sat on my bed on the day of Achtung Baby’s release and tore open the cellophane on the cassette. We had already heard “The Fly,” and so had some inkling of the idea that this was not going to be The Joshua Tree II, but were still pretty unprepared for the squall of guitar that opened the album; or the dirtier, clanging percussion; or the electronic processing Bono’s voice was being put through. Listening to the album now, it’s hard to remember how foreign this sounded to us, and how many listens it took for it to start to make sense. But many years later, I’m pretty confident of the greatness of this song (and album), and of how smart it was of the band to kick off this new album with those sounds. When the chorus comes around that ringing Edge guitar is there, if still somewhat disguised, and I can hear that this is indeed the same U2 I fell in love with.

#38 – “Grace”
All That You Can’t Leave Behind provides us with another reflective album closer in “Grace,” a simple, gorgeous ballad about the idea of, well, grace. Opening with a simple repeated guitar riff and bass line, this is a song that takes its time. It’s odd for U2 to indulge in as extended an intro as this—especially one not about a quiet build but that is basically a complete musical thought in and of itself, without lyrics. We don’t hear Bono until 1:03 into the song, in fact, and the intensity doesn’t ratchet up once he enters—he stays with the low-key, quit vibe of that guitar and bass line, and while we get some accent notes and synth chords in the background, it’s not until the second verse that the drums kick in. And really, that’s it—this is not, like “The First Time” is, a song that uses a slow build to achieve dramatic effect. It is instead a simple, assured, sweet, and beautiful song about forgiveness and serenity. I make it sound sleep-inducing; it’s anything but. “Grace finds goodness in everything.”

#37 – “One Tree Hill”
This deeper cut off of The Joshua Tree was never a big single or hit (in the United States—in New Zealand it charted at #1), but it is a favorite of U2 fans and in its own way a centerpiece of the album. Written as a kind of eulogy for Greg Carroll, a roadie from New Zealand who died in a motorcycle crash shortly before the recording of the album, the song is a chugging, solemn, and yet not depressing ode to the land and the One Tree Hill peak in New Zealand that Carroll had shown the band years before. In typical Bono fashion, the lyrics are not specific to the landmark or Carroll, but instead are more simply about the land and the inevitability of life cycling over and over: “We run like a river/Run to the sea/We run like a river to the sea.” There is something vaguely tribal in the rhythm to the song, and the lilting, serene, rolling riff is an Edge highlight. My favorite bit may be the pain Bono allows into his voice at the end as he sings, over and over “raining in the heart, raining in the heart.” This is a beautiful, sweeping song, and a highlight of the album. 

#36 – “Running to Stand Still”
“With or Without You” may be the ballad from The Joshua Tree that everyone remembers, bit this is really the ballad at the heart of the album. Opening with a plaintive, almost-country melody on an acoustic guitar, the song quickly yields to a quiet, mournful chord progression on the piano, with guitar quietly plucking on top. Over this somber bed of music Bono sings “And so she woke up/Woke up from where she was/Lying still/Said I gotta do something/About where we're going.” Bono has talked over the years about how the song is about heroin addiction in in Dublin's Ballymun flats, a public housing complex and the place described in the song as “seven towers,” and the refrain “running to stand still” is a wonderfully poetic way to describe the trap of addiction. While the song builds to a climax of sorts with the bridge (“She is raging/She is raging/And the storm blows up in her eyes”), it ends on a sad note of denouement, with Bono playing a mournful harmonica. This was a highlight of the live concert footage in Rattle & Hum, with the band really making the quiet, hushed song work in a big arena setting. 

#35 – “Mysterious Ways”
“Mysterious Ways” was a big hit for Achtung Baby, and in the United States the band’s fourth-highest tracking song ever. This danceable, funky song is defined by two key elements—a hooky, short riff from the Edge that repeats throughout the song, and an insidious, sinuous bass line from Adam that doesn’t kick in until 40 seconds in. Live, this song became a centerpiece of the Zoo TV tour, with a belly dancer appearing on stage to entice Bono as he sang about a woman “mov[ing] in mysterious ways”—although it would be the Edge that fell in love with and married her. For me, the song rates as high as it does for the hypnotic, building bridge, which ratchets up the intensity before yielding back to the chorus. It is also important to note that this is yet another U2 song that conflates religion and sex, or love, with the obvious allusion to He that usually is said to move in mysterious ways. You know, people make fun of “You Might up My Life” for a lyrical conceit that U2 has lived off for years. 

#34 – “Magnificent”
As I have said already, No Line on the Horizon seems to have gotten a reputation in the five years since its release as a failure that failed because it neglected to offer up the big anthemic U2 sound that made such a triumphant comeback with All That You Can’t Leave Behind. This is such bunk that it almost beggars belief. This big, anthemic U2 song is exhibit A. The soaring chorus and airplane-taking-off guitar are there, married to a dance beat that’s much less of a dance beat than some of the Pop stuff. This is just a big, back-of-the arena U2 song, and I really can’t suss out why it made less of an impact than, say, “Beautiful Day.” It even has some of that conflating-God-with-the-terrestrial thing the band likes to do—“From the womb my first cry/it was a joyful noise.” I just don’t get it.

#33 – “I Will Follow”
Getting into some big guns. This is the first U2 song to hit big, still a live staple, and a song that will almost certainly lead out the obituary of both Bono and the Edge on the nightly news when they die. This is the first incarnation of the minimalist U2 sound, and apart from some triangle or light bell noise going on in the background is pretty indicative of the music the band would continue to make for the next thirty-plus years. It kicks off with an instantly identifiable Edge riff, still one of his most famous, and a great example of how the band would do more with less over their entire career. Just a machine-gun attack of a riff that threatens to oscillate forever until a final jump up the scale at the end. This simple figure repeats throughout the song, pinned down by youthful drums and a functional bass line. Over this alchemy Bono sings about the transition out of childhood and into adulthood, the theme of the album. This still may be one of my favorites of Bono’s lyrics: “A boy tries hard to be a man/His mother takes him by the hand/If he stops to think, he starts to cry/Oh why?” And then there’s the bridge, where the machine gun stops and we get a pushing bass line and some strummed chorus over the sounds of glass bottles clanking together. That moment when the machine gun returns? Pure poetry. 

#32 – “Until the End of the World”
One of the few character songs the band would do, this Achtung Baby album and tour highlight is famously sung by Judas to Jesus. And while lyrics like “I took the money, I spiked your drink/You miss too much these days if you stop to think” and “In the garden I was playing the tart/I kissed your lips and broke your heart” make the point of view pretty clear, this is still a U2 song, and so barely qualifies as a real “character” song the way a, say, Tom Waits song might. It’s still a hell of a rock song, and was a live staple for a few tours. Tribal drums kick things off after some seriously electronically tortured Bono wails and then lead into a spiky Edge riff. The “chorus” is really just the one line (“You, you were acting like it was the end of the world), followed by the opening riff, but we do get a very nice Edge solo in between verses, longer than he usually allows, and one that really took off live. 

#31 – “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”
This Grammy-winning ballad off of All That You Can’t Leave Behind is another example of that album’s experimental nature. No, it doesn’t experiment with new electronic sounds or dance rhythms, but in its piano soul stylings it was as much of a departure for the band as was “Mofo.” Written in response to Michael Hutchinson’s suicide, in a kind of tough-love format (“You gotta stand up straight, carry your own weight/These tears are going nowhere, baby”) the song has Bono wrestling with questions about what would drive someone to such a horrible act. And yet the song, slightly tinged with melancholy though it may be, is upbeat, with those soul and gospel piano chords doing a lot to keep the mood from turning sour. The coda, with its inspirational lyric of hope, is a lovely a thing as the band has ever written.

And if the night runs over
And if the day won't last
And if your way should falter
Along the stony pass
It's just a moment
This time will pass

Until Whenever

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

U2 Ranked - #50 - #41

#50 – “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”
And here we are. The top 50 U2 songs. At this stage, you can assume that I am an unabashed, huge fan of each of these songs. Sure, that love will only intensify as we go, but you can take as a baseline that I love them all.

“Crazy” is a pretty unabashed pop song, and the two-chord strummed chord figure that comes in after the echoing riff that kicks off the song bears a little resemblance to what is probably U2’s biggest pure pop hit, “The Sweetest Thing.” And if the song kept on that two-chord vibe it would be a good U2 song—pleasant and a little winsome. But then the chorus kicks in and we get this big anthemic line, on “It’s not a hill, it’s a mountain, as you start out the climb.” Just a great sweeping, big melody, with a great vocal from Bono as he hits the high notes. I also like how the humor in the title carries its way throughout the song, with lines like “Every beauty needs to go out with an idiot” and “The right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear.” Again, U2 does not get a lot of credit for even having a sense of humor, so it’s worth calling out these moments. 

#49 – “The Electric Co.”
Another song I came to on the Under a Blood Red Sky live EP, this song, off of Boy, features one of U2’s most indelible riffs, a galloping machine gun of a sound, spitting away underneath lyrics about the transition from boyhood to manhood (the central theme of the entire album). Later, after a furious, stuttering guitar solo, we get an oddly dreamy bridge with Bono’s vocal echoing off in the background – from this haze the Edge’s guitar slowly retakes dominance, until the band comes crashing back into the chorus. This song was also somewhat infamous for how Bono would quote lyric snippets over that hazy bridge in concert—and how when he used Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” on the Red Rocks recording the band got sued by the composer. 

#48 – “In a Little While”
As I’ve said before, there is a kind of consensus that All That You Can’t Leave Behind represents a kind of retreat from the experimental industrial, electronic, and dance sounds of Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop, but I’ve always found that notion suspect. Just as Rattle & Hum represented a band experimenting with musical styles it hadn’t much played with, so does some of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. “In a Little While” is a soul song, tender and aching and simple, but for U2 it is just as much an experiment as “MOFO” was. The song starts off with a sweet, very slightly bluesy guitar line, which repeats with some bass and drum beneath. Then Bono comes in. His voice on this song is ragged and rough, soulful in a new, interesting way, as he sings lines about his wife, Alison (That girl, that girl she's mine/Well I've known her since/Since she was/A little girl with Spanish eyes). When Joey Ramone mentioned listening to the song in the hospital before he died, the song took on a more religious meaning, with lines like “In a little while/This hurt will hurt no more/I'll be home, love” sounding like the last words of a dying man. Either way you interpret it, the song remains a simple soul song, sweetly sung.

#47 – “Love Rescue Me”
Legend has it that there is a version of this song out there with more Bob Dylan. “Love Rescue Me” was written with Dylan, and he apparently recorded a few verses that couldn’t be used in the recording for contractual reasons. Either way, the Dylan influence is palpable – you can tell Bono was trying to write a “Bob Dylan” song. A long track by U2 standards at 6:25, the song opens with a simple arpeggiated chord figure on the guitar with a mournful harmonica over top. Bono’s vocal here is one of his all-time best, deep and soulful, and in lines like “Many strangers have I met/On the road to my regret/Many lost who seek to find themselves in me” you can hear the Dylan influence. You can also hear the Dylan influence in the folk song-like structure, with the many verses sung over the same music. As the song progresses, things get a little more gospel than Dylan tended to get, with a church organ making its presence known and a big ‘ol horn section coming in at the end. Still, strip away those elements and you still have a very powerful, simple song that, a la Dylan, could work (and does) performed just on acoustic guitar. 

#46 – “All Because of You”
This song off of How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is a straight-ahead rock song, more “rock” than U2 typically is, and it’s a corker. A squeal off the guitar starts things, and then the main riff comes barreling in, thick and meaty and muscular, with a fat bass and tight drums beneath. As he so often does, Bono plays with religious metaphor in the lyric, with the identity of the “you” in “All Because of You” pretty clearly God (“I was born a child of grace/Nothing else about the place/Everything was ugly but your beautiful face/And it left me no illusion”). There’s also a great guitar break towards the end, with the Edge indulging in just a little of the “guitar God” antics he so rarely does. This is just a fun, hard-hitting U2 rock song. Nothing wrong with that. 

#45 – “Original of the Species”
We are sticking with How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb for this deeply felt song about parenthood. At least that’s how I’ve always interpreted it. A lilting piano starts things off and Bono begins singing about time moving too fast and wanting the addressed to stay a child. Over some snythy strings he sings what I consider one of the great U2 lines: “I’ll give you everything you want/Except the thing that you want/You are the first one of your kind.” He’ll give his child anything he or she wants – except what he or she really wants (independence). He is not leaving. And then that killer last line—I absolutely love the metaphor of being an “original of the species” to communicate how special the child is – how he or she is a new, unique person, never before seen by the world. Then the chorus. “I want the lot of what you got/And I want nothing that you're not.” What a beautiful way to communicate acceptance. I want you to be nothing that you are not. So simple. 

#44 – “Yahweh”
And now we get the last song on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, which, in a bit of a departure for the band, is not a slow downer of a song, or a reflective meditation, but an upbeat inspirational song. Over a rapid beat, and ringing guitar, Bono sings a simple prayer for absolution and grace. “Take this soul/Stranded in some skin and bones/Take this soul/And make it sing.” And then the chorus. “Yahweh, Yahweh/Always pain before a child is born/Yahweh, Yahweh/Still I'm waiting for the dawn.” What I find completely fascinating is how the song is about that yearning for God and grace—but not necessarily about finding it. That interpretation can get buried given the clean music, and the simple lyrics, but look at that last line of the chorus. “Still I'm waiting for the dawn.” Waiting. See also how Bono sings the melody of each Yahweh. You expect to hear the melody resolve downwards on the second “Yahweh.” But it doesn’t—at least not until the very end. Such a beautiful way to sing about hope and the need to keep hope coming. 

#43 – “Exit”
Another song I really came to love in a live version, this one from Rattle & Hum. This is an odd song for U2 in its darkness, use of chaos, and almost theatrical build. Right at the start we get this very churchy introduction sung over slow, majestic synths. And then, so quietly and slowly that you think the song is over, we get this dark, foreboding bass figure over some moaning guitars, and then Bono’s hushed, almost spoken delivery of a tale of a lost soul turning to a gun and violence, in a time of darkness. By the second verse, Bono and the band are getting louder, but we still aren’t hearing much in terms of structure, or melody, or a chord progression. And then, after “The pistol weighed heavy/And his heart he could feel was beating” we get an explosion of sound from the band that pretty quickly dies away again, before returning for the finale. On record that explosion isn’t as dramatic as I think the band wanted it to be; live, it’s extremely effective, especially the finale of the piece (before they launch into the Van Morrison “Gloria” cover), which is as loud and thrashy as U2 ever got. 

#42 – “Vertigo”
After “Beautiful Day” SO successfully launched their last album, you might have expected U2 to launch How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb with a similarly anthemic, uplifting first single. Instead, we got a bit of tongue-in-cheek Spanish, Bono calling the Edge “Captain,” and an infectious, dirty, riff that was more classic rock than classic U2. I love the way that Adam takes over the basic melody of the riff for the verse while the Edge scratches out some rhythm in the background. Then for the chorus we get this sing-along melody that Bono just wails on. I distinctly remember being very taken aback when I first heard this song, but it quickly grew on me, and I found its garage rock vibe just delightful. One more thing to call attention to – the classically minimalist Edge solo, in which the same basic figure is played four times, the only difference being whether there is a brief pause at the end of the phrase or not (twice there is, twice there is not). 

#41 – “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”
Another breakup song off of Achtung Baby, this one never stuck as a single or a live song, but it’s always been one of my favorites. After a strange electronic sequel of an intro, we get some grand, dirty guitar chords ringing out. “You’re dangerous cause your honest.” That’s the first line. The drums come in banging out a tribal cadence. And the release is withheld—two verses before the chorus, not one. Then the release of the chorus – a yearning Edge riff and these aching words from Bono “Who's gonna ride your wild horses?/Who's gonna drown in your blue sea?/Who's gonna ride your wild horses?/Who's gonna fall at the foot of thee?” Later, we get to the bridge and one of my favorite vocal moments from Bono. It’s a longer bridge, more complex than your typical bridge, and it ends with this repeated phrase: “Don’t turn around, don’t turn around again.” Twice we get that loop, the second time Boni singing it in a higher register, and then we climax with the phrase “Come on now love, don't you look back,” with the note on that “look” as far as I can tell the highest note Bono has ever sung on record in full voice – a high C. Just a gorgeous performance and piece of songwriting. 

Until Whenever