Monday, October 24, 2005

Dylan Speaks Truth

"Everybody's going to remember your songs; it's just that nobody's gonna be able to play them." - Bob Dylan, speaking to the Edge about U2's music and legacy.

Love that quote. Dylan, as might be expected regarding things musical, knows of what he speaks. U2's music is remarkably specific to U2. They aren't great songwriters in the traditional sense of the word; that is, they don't write solid, well-constructed, ingenious combinations of melody, harmony, and lyric, like, well, Dylan does. One can easily imagine a multitude of singers a hundred years hence making much hay out of the Dylan songbook--the material there is as strong as a Gershwin's or Porter's, and I don't have much doubt that much of Dylan's best will decades from now have been folded seamlessly into the body of work we tend to think of as the "Great American Songbook."

Not so U2's music. There are exceptions, but for the most part the quality, the greatness, in a U2 song is in how the band makes it so much more than the sum of its parts. The harmonic structures, the variety of chords and chord changes, and the variety in melodic lines in a U2 song are not particularly innovative or challenging or elegant. But the way the band has marshaled its distinct sensibilities into those songs is. "Where the Streets Have No Name," for example, isn't a brilliant song because of the inventiveness of the melody, or the wit or craft in the lyric. It is a brilliant song, though, because of the way the band takes a simple harmonic development and expands it into something greater; for the way the pulsing rhythm of the drums is charged with doing something more than just defining a beat; for the way the minimalist guitar figures at the beginning and end define the parameters of the song while also building a soundscape for Bono to inhabit with his vocal. All valid, wonderful things, but not, per se. "songwriting" things. U2's genius is on record and on stage, not on the page. That's not a bad thing, but it is a thing worth noting.

Until Whenever

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