#70 – “Scarlet”
Just drums to start. A little martial. Softly, then gaining in volume. Then a loping bass line comes in, guitar close on its heels, simple chiming chords. Then the piano, declamatory chords. Then just the drum. Then it all comes back, now with voice. “Rejoice!” No other lyrics. Just “rejoice.” U2 at its most nakedly religious? Stately, oh-so-serious, so clearly aiming for the grand. I just can’t resist it.
#69 – “Gloria”
I’ll cop to falling in love with this song in its live “Under a Blood Red Sky” incarnation, but it works just fine on record too. With the Latin (“Gloria...in te domine/Gloria...exultate), U2 cops to the religious angle here as well, but somehow “Scarlet” is more overt. “I try to sing this song/I try to stand up/But I can't find my feet/I try, I try to speak up/But only in you I'm complete.” The adolescent me loved that line. He also liked the little bit of theatricality that is built into that slow-burning, pausing-for-dramatic-effect guitar solo. And then an honest-to-goodness bass solo? This is 100% proof U2 goodness right here.
#68 – “Get On Your Boots”
When this song came out as the lead single for the hotly anticipated No Line on the Horizon, I’ll admit to being a bit underwhelmed. The rationale seemed clear – the (for U2) hard-rocking “Vertigo” had been well-received as the lead single to How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, so why not repeat the pattern here? I think history will pretty clearly show that the tactic failed, with No Line a commercial disappointment for the band. And yet as the album got under my skin, so did this song, with its fuzzed-out guitar, it’s not-uncompelling riff, its Middle-Eastern-inflected chorus, and its chanted “Let me in the sound” at the end. It also worked really well as a live a shot in the arm. Not bad for a bit of a tossed-off rock song.
#67 – “Angel of Harlem”
More playing in the genre playground, here with some Memphis soul, replete with a big horn section, in this Rattle & Hum cut. The irony is that, while one would be hard-pressed to call U2 a soul band, this song, somehow, really works, and really does have soul, with the horns feeling organic to the tune and not an affectation. U2 is weird in that way, in that they clearly have an affinity for this kind of music, no matter how afield it feels from their typical sound. And yet when Bono hits that “heart and soul” at the bridge, well, hell, yeah, like I said, it just works. What is even odder is that the band worked this into an acoustic song for tours, without the Sun Studios production and the horns, the song still works. Weird.
#66 – “Desire”
Here, in their Rattle & Hum tour of American music, the band takes on Bo Diddley with an infectious blues, very Diddley-inspired riff. I still remember how different this, the lead single off of Rattle & Hum, sounded to me as a teenager who had come to the band through the majesty and epic scope of The Joshua Tree. And now here was this down and dirty, quick stomp of a song, with a near-spoken bridge speaking of preachers and traveling shows and its wailed harmonica at the end. It took a few listens, but I grokked to it pretty quickly.
#65 – “Even Better Than the Real Thing”
A live staple of the Zoo TV tour and beyond, this was the second song on Achtung Baby, and if it backed off slightly from the new sound promised by the first track, the crunchier “Zoo Station,” it was only slightly. Here the groove was a bit looser, a bit sexier, and the tune a little more accessible, and the lyrics more inviting: “You're honey child to a swarm of bees/Gonna blow right through you like a breeze/Give me one last dance/We'll slide down the surface of things.” This was U2 in a bit of a primal mode, with the repeated “take me higher”s at the end invigorating and enticing. “Zoo Station” was meant to be a bit of a slap in the face; this was intended to be more of a caress. And it worked.
#64 – “Elevation”
More than a decade on, All That You Can’t Leave Behind has gathered to itself a bit of a reputation as a “safer” U2 album, less experimental, more traditional. And yet one listen to the opening riff of “Elevation” should make that notion suspect – had the band ever issued forth a sound like that buzzsaw of a guitar part, that harsh, snarling, up-and-down growl of a riff? There is a swagger to this song that is nothing like the “U2 of the 80s” the album is seen as a return to; it’s got an attitude and a cocky feel that just struts. And live it found great use as the tour opener, with the band coming out under full house lights to pick up instruments and launch into this, with the stage lights only coming in after that great big pregnant pause before the last chorus.
#63 – “One Step Closer.”
Now here is a U2 ballad I can get behind. This deep cut off of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is kind of forgotten now, and never had a life in concert, but it’s a gem of a meditation on death and the afterlife, taken from a conversation Bono had with Neal Gallagher when Bono’s father was dying. "Do you think he believes in God?" “Bono asked? "Well, he's one step closer to knowing." The music is slow and reflective, and atmospheric, but it’s the lyrics that really work here. “I'm on an island at a busy intersection/I can't go forward, I can't turn back/Can't see the future/It's getting away from me/I just watch the tail lights glowing.” That’s as neat a meditation on death that I’ve ever heard.
#62 – “40”
For years, it was U2 concert tradition to end with this song, the Psalm 40-inspired closing track off of War. Chiming guitar and a wonderfully subtle bass line drive the song forward, but it’s the repeated chorus, with its impassioned “How long, to sing their song?” that is really the song’s heartbeat. Typically the song would end with the band members leaving the stage one-by-one, Larry last to go, banging out that drumbeat while the crowd chanted the refrain. Just a wonderfully ruminative, questing piece of music.
#61 – “Mofo”
If I thought that “Desire” was a surprise that took some doing to wrap my head around, what was “Mofo” like? This is perhaps the most aggressively experimental song on the pretty-experimental Pop, and I’ve loved it since the beginning. Is there more programming and drum machine and synth sounds here than I would like in a U2 song, typically? Sure. But as an experiment, as a lark, why the hell not? There are a few elements here that really make this song for me. The first is what I will always hear as a bass line, even if in concert it was clearly a programmed beat or a synth riff being played in the underground stage. It comes in pretty quickly, after some frenetic drumming/drum machines, double-tracked drums, and in its rapid rhythm, and the way it rises at the end, it instantly hooked me. The second is that jet plane taking off of a guitar sound the Edge came up with, and the way it screams over that bass line during the intro. The last is the bridge, where the electronic chaos is swept away so that Bono can implore over the bass, in nakedly autobiographical detail, “Mother...am I still your son/You know I've waited for so long to hear you say so/Mother...you left and made me someone/Now I'm still a child, no one tells me no.” Chills. Also – if anyone knows a modern jazz combo, can you tell them that this song really needs covering? Thanks.