Friday, March 21, 2014

U2 Ranked - #114 - #101

We're going with a larger group here to get us into the top 100 cleanly.

#114 – “Trip Through Your Wires”
U2 is not a blues band. The Edge is not a blues guitarist. And so the list of songs in their catalog that wear their blues influences on their sleeves is small. This track, our first track from The Joshua Tree (the album many, including your humble narrator, consider to be the band’s best album) is on that list. From the bar room beat of the opening drums, to the sloppy harmonica, to the two-guys-at-the-mic sung aesthetic, this is a bar band song, sung by a band that is very much not a bar band. And yet it works. Not in the “this is a classic song” sense, but it works. The energy, the enthusiasm, and the way the Edge can’t quite lose his “Edginess,” even on a song like this, all combine to create something that hangs together surprisingly well.

#113 – “Last Night on Earth”
On Pop, an album known for its experimentation, this song, apart from some odd synth effects at the outset, is really a palate cleanser, a pretty straightforward U2 rock song. It’s also a pretty damn good one, with its rising chorus of “you gotta give it away” and some pretty sharp lyrics about the girl at the center of the lyric. “She's not waiting on a savior to come/She's at the bus-stop with News of the World and the Sun.” That’s a nicely observed and specific lyric for this band, one that pretty quickly paints a picture. That this song found a home in the PopMart live set is no surprise.

#112 – “Twilight”
This song is the second track on U2’s debut Boy, following the still-performed and remembered “I Will Follow.” For many a burgeoning U2 fan, as I was once upon a time, these second tracks that follow well-known first tracks are real litmus tests. After all, when I first got this album I already knew “I Will Follow” well from the Under a Blood Red Sky live record. So when I first put Boy into my little boom box, I was right with it for that first song. And then “Twilight” hit, and very ably carried the spell forward. A melodic mid-tempo rocker, its opening see-saw guitar and bass hooked me in, and the DNA that was shared between this and what I already knew of U2 and their sound was clear. There’s a lyric in here – “Under shadow, boy meets man” that has always stuck with me. Maybe it’s a matter of the age I was when I first got hooked on this band, but I have a great fondness for this song.

#111 – “Drowning Man”
This War track has a great groove to it, with an acoustic figure and looping bass line repeated with a kind of determined insistence over lyrics that speak of determination and promise. “Take my hand/You know I'll be there, If you can/I'll cross the sky for your love.” U2 does really well with this kind of song. It’s kind of like “Bolero” – a repeated idea that never really develops or changes, but that works well anyway a statement of intensity. 

#110 – “Lemon”
Can we agree that, Pop’s reputation as a “disco” album notwithstanding, this is U2’s most disco-influenced song? If we remember the context Zooropa was released in, Achtung Baby had already been a bit of a whiplash-inducing album for fans, with some striking new sounds and approaches yielding very substantial fruit. And then this seeming throwaway of an album took that ball even further, with less of a visible thread connecting back to the U2 of old. So this “dance” song was received, and is still seen by many, as an affront—as U2 playing in waters it has no business playing in. And yet for me it’s just a damn fine U2 song, with the piano, synth, and that clear, aching Bono falsetto combining to make some very affecting music. It’s also a lyrically strong song for the band (Zooropa on the whole is a lyrically strong album). “A man makes a picture/A moving picture/Through the light projected/He can see himself up close.” It’s also a more explicitly sexual song than usual for this band, with the opening lyrics leaving little room for interpretation: “See through in the sunlight/She wore lemon/But never in the daylight/She's gonna make you cry/She's gonna make you whisper and moan/And when you're dry/She draws her water from the stone.” 

#109 – “Sweetest Thing”
This B-Side to “Where the Streets Have No Name” is U2 at its most nakedly pop-influenced. This is nothing more than a bouncy, joyful, upbeat exclamation of joy sung, by Bono to his wife in the most common reading, as a straightforward exclamation of love. “Ain’t love the sweetest thing” indeed.

#108 – “Hawkmoon 269”
Another Rattle & Hum original, this song starts off with a little bit of quiet carnival organ before a big tympani booms in, heralding an urgent strummed acoustic figure that starts off intense and never lets up. The organ continues in the background as Bono growls lyrics about a desert and a town with no name and a drifter. Electric guitar is added. Bono moves up the octave, still singing in these brief, evocative, scene-setting snippets, ending each line with “I need your love.” This is a dramatic, theatrical song, full of striking images and Western and noir-influenced lines, that keeps building and building throughout its near-seven minute length (long for U2). Songs like this either work for you or they don’t—this one works for me, all the way to the backup singers incessantly chanting “And a need for love in the heart” at the end.

#107 – “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World”
Another Achtung Baby deep cut, this is a slow jam of a song, with a relaxed, hanging-out bass line, and a delightful tone. “Gonna run to you/run to you/run to you” goes the repeated refrain, and the simple yearning in the song comes off very nicely. The spoken-verse break in the middle is a little much, but it’s charming all the same. “I took an open-top Beetle/Through the eye of a neddle” – Bono can be a lazy lyricist with a weakness for the universal over the specific, but it bears remembering that he can get off some great lines.

#106 – “A Day Without Me”
This Boy cut resonates for me because of the optimistic, upbeat way Bono sings such teenaged downer lyrics like “Starting a landslide in my ego.” Remember that he lost his mother at a very early age and the lyrics take on deeper meaning. But it’s the music that keeps me coming back, especially Edge’s proto-Edge keening guitar solo in the middle and the very joyful “ba-ba” singing that comes after the drum break at the end. 

#105 – “Shadows and Tall Trees”
This Boy closer starts a long tradition of melancholy, sad, dour-even U2 album closers. There’s something about the stop-and-start drum beat and minor-key guitar chords that I’ve always loved, but it’s the building drama in the “shadows and tall trees” chorus that gets this so close to the top 100. “Life through a window/A discolored pane” may be a tad (tad?) dramatic and purple a line, but it works in their very young hands.

#104 – “Two Shots of Happy, Two Shots of Sad”
When I first heard that Bono and the Edge were writing a musical, I was very, very skeptical. Not because I don’t love U2 (duh), but because they are exactly the kind of songwriters that should not be writing musical theater. Musical theater needs to be character-based, very specific, and very structured. U2’s music is none of that. And yet. When Bono and the Edge decided to write a song for Frank Sinatra and get him to sing it (a task they failed) this is what they came up with. And it’s a pitch-perfect lounge song, with a slow, sad melody; smart, introspective lyrics; and exactly the right amount of theater in the melody and production. You listen to this and wonder if they had a musical in them after all. Then you listen to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and your realize they didn’t.

#103 – FEZ-Being Born
And we finally get to U2’s last album, the woefully underappreciated masterpiece that is No Line on the Horizon. This is the most experimental song on the album, two songs really,--as the title suggests this is two different studio experiments smooshed together. The first minute is all slow drums and a hazy, soundscape that evokes a mood quite nicely. And then, after some admittedly odd “play the song backwards” effects, we get a mid-tempo U2 rock song that nonetheless has a great, tactile feel of urgency to it. Given that we are still above the magic #100, I don’t think it’s a stunningly effective experiment, but there’s much to chew on here.

#102 – “Get on Your Boots”
And here we have the polar opposite of FEZ, at least for No Line on the Horizon, an almost-goofy, straight-ahead rock song that many would argue was a huge misstep for the band to present as the lead single. I won’t disagree, and the placement here suggests it’s not anywhere near the album’s best, but it’s not quite just a dumb rock song either, the chants of “sexy boots” notwithstanding. It’s the chorus that really saves this song, with its almost Middle East-sounding melody and chord progression and insinuating feel. And the end, with its chant of “Let me in the sound” over a hard-hitting drum beat? That shit just works, man.


#101 – “Peace on Earth”
All That You Can’t Leave Behind’s de riguer political ballad, this song succeeds almost in spite of itself. What makes it turn the corner for me, what saves it from what could be an over-earnest, syrupy plea for peace, is the way the lyric never really embraces hope. There’s a defeatist air here. So lyrics like “Where I grew up/There weren't many trees/Where there was we'd tear them down/And use them on our enemies” are saved by the plaintive way a lyric like “Jesus could you take the time/To throw a drowning man a line?” is sung. The song is hopeful for “peace on earth,” but only barely. And that’s what makes it work.

Until Whenever

Monday, March 17, 2014

U2 Ranked - #124 - #115

#124 – “God Part II”
That Rattle and Hum is seen by history as an act of hubris, of an indulgent bit of musical tourism by a band that should have known better, is by now a given that no one argues with. And within that construct of assumed arrogance, we get things like the interpretation of Bono’s “Charles Manson stole this from the Beatles; we’re stealing it back.” intro to a live cover of “Helter Skelter” as one of unforgivable arrogance. While I’ve never cottoned to that viewpoint, that U2 was out to honor and play with some musical giants is undeniable, and this song, an ostensible, in spirit, anyway, sequel to John Lennon’s “God,” is a prime example. And if the result is not perhaps on par with a Lennon classic, it does have a sneaky power behind it. An insistent, sinister bass line anchors a sneaky almost-mellow introduction, as Bono recites a litany of what he doesn’t believe in. Then the third verse hits and the guitar comes crashing in, and now Bono is singing the melody up the octave in an impassioned howl. “I don’t believe in the ‘60s/The golden age of pop/You glorify the past/When the future dries up.” I’ve always loved that line, not as an admission of defeat, but as a warning of what nostalgia can lead to. And it’s a fascinating line in the context of this song and this album – which in many ways were about glorifying the 60s. 

#123 – “Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car”
Another Zooropa experiment, from the title (which is cheeky and specific in a way that U2 songs often aren’t) to the orchestral opening (a fanfare from “Lenin’s Favorite Songs”), to the dance club beat. I like that the lyrics are more specific and detailed than is typical for the band (“A little uptight/You're a baby's fist/Butterfly kisses up and down your wrist”). But it’s the build I like most in this song, and how it’s not achieved through anything overt, but just through a gradual increase in intensity. 

#122 – “Babyface”
Another Zooropa deep cut, this mellow attempt at a Barry White-style slow jam starts with a toy xylophone dinging out a playful figure, followed by an Adam bass line that is, quite impishly, a revisit of the “With or Without You” bass line. This is a fun, loose U2 song, with an easy Bono vocal (he’s not straining to be sexy like he is on “If You Wear That Velvet Dress”). In keeping with the album’s overall feel, there’s some interesting sound experiments going on in the background, but it’s the periodic return to the xylophone and bass that keeps the song from losing its charm.

#121 – “Tomorrow”
For a band that has never been shy about grappling with Irish politics in its songs, U2 has always stayed away from overt Irish influences in its music. This song, with its mournful Uileann pipes, is an exception. The repeated refrain of “Won’t you be back tomorrow” has been interpreted as an indication that the song is about Bono’s mother’s passing, and the funereal pipes, plus the anger in the end when the guitar finally comes ringing in over repeated “Cause I want you . . .” certainly makes a strong case. Either way, the emotional feel of the song, with its sad drone and distant pipes, is an effective one. 

#120 – “Wild Honey”
There is a faction of U2 fandom that, with the U2 resurgence that came with All That You Can’t Leave Behind, found this to be the album’s odd man out, a song worthy of mockery. What always struck me as odd was that the criticism seemed to coalesce around a specific lyric: “In the days/When we were swinging from the trees/I was a monkey/Stealing honey from a swarm of bees.” Apart from the fact that such playful lyrics are not U2’s traditional style, I never saw anything specifically wrong about the line. In any case, this is still the All That You Can’t Leave Behind song with the lowest placement here. A light, playful acoustic throwaway, the song still has a charm that I can’t deny. On top of that, there’s a very interesting bridge, with Bono wailing away in a broken, painful upper register that really resonates. 

#119 – “Crumbs from Your Table”
One of those U2 songs where U2 (Bono) really wears its (his) political passions a little too squarely on their (his) sleeves, this song nevertheless sticks with me. Sure, lines like “Would you deny for others/What you demand for yourself?” and “Where you live should not decide/Whether you live or whether you die” are a little on-the-nose, but the passion is hard to deny, and the riff and melody on this mid-tempo rocker do their job well. It’s really the bridge when it gets interesting, and elevates it up this list a little, with the vocal shifting into an angrier, more despairing inflection and phrasing that makes the message, pathos-ridden as it is, stick.

#118 – “Another Time, Another Place”
This cut from U2’s first album, Boy, is very earnest in its early U2-ness, with its ringing guitar, fat bass, and impassioned delivery. But that main riff is riveting in its simplicity, and the band’s inexperienced passion really comes through. Sure, the lyrics are very high-school-journaling (“Just as I am/I awoke with a tear on my tongue/I awoke with a feeling of never before/In my sleep I discover the one/But she ran with the morning sun”) but the energy is hard to deny. Add to that an odd ending in which Bono starts experimenting with a growled, almost Germanic delivery, and you have an interesting early U2 song, at least. (Sidebar to note that the remarkably mangled prosody on the “another place” part of the lyric is really a wonder to behold).

#117 – “Seconds”
This War cut stands as one of the very few U2 songs with an Edge lead vocal. And as is often the case when non-lead singers in band take the lead vocal on a song, they, for whatever reason, really end up sounding like the lead singer. It was years before I realized that it wasn’t Bono singing this song. The song itself, a catchy, almost poppy ditty sung to a martial beat, is about the looming specter of nuclear war, and so can sound a bit dated now (although lyrics like “In an apartment on Times Square/You can assemble them anywhere” really do have new meanings today, huh?). The short pause in the bridge, with recordings of sounds from a war documentary, comes off as kind of needlessly arty and precious today, and yet the tightness of the band and the same martial drum that would (only one track later) define one of the band’s best songs, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” so indelibly, make this a song worth listening to.

#116 – “The Three Sunrises”
This single, one of a pair of new songs included on the live Wide Awake in America EP that documented the Unforgettable Fire tour, features some great crunchy guitar and a thicker and a punchier bass sound than usual, but it’s really the soaring chorus that lets it rank so relatively high for an EP throwaway. The chorus is as simple as they come (“In this love song/love song/love song/love won´t find/find its own way home.”), and yet the rise of the melody gives it a real joy. 

#115 – “The Ground Beneath Her Feet”
This is the song from the Million Dollar Hotel project that always struck me as the most clearly a “U2 song,” even if the main synth riff, the overall harmonic feel, and the lyrics (which come from a Salman Rushdie novel, making this the rare song U2 wrote just music for) aren’t typically “U2.” And yet the band really feels like a band here, and there’s a groove here that sits nicely with their style. I particularly like the quiet opening, with a drumbeat followed by a high synth part that drops down the scale to lead into that main riff. A forgotten song, but a solid one.

Until Whenever

Monday, March 10, 2014

U2 Ranked - #134-#125

#134 – “Summer Rain”
This “Beautiful Day” B-side is maybe the first song I would recommend on this list. The chaff is starting (starting – not done yet!) to fall away. That rare U2 song based on a simple strummed acoustic guitar chord pattern, that fallback of coffeehouse songwriters the world over, this tune has a nice alternate history feel to it – like if U2 had been a coffeehouse band this is what they might have been about. The lyric is a bit lazy – “I lost myself in the summer rain” sounds like a lyric you’d hear . . . from a college kid with an acoustic guitar in a coffeehouse. But there’s something in the song’s unabashed simplicity and lack of fussiness that resonates.

#133 – “I Fall Down”
This October deep cut kicks off with piano – a sound and style that’s something the U2 of October experimented with some and then never really revisited. As with much of October the lyric is a bit sketchy, with Julie and her letter (“Julie says/John I'm getting nowhere/I wrote this letter/Hope to get someplace soon”) sounding like details of a fuller story we never really get a picture of. But the music is full of that early U2 energy, and the simple piano line is pretty effective. We also get an early version of an Edge background falsetto, so that’s something.

#132 – “If You Wear That Velvet Dress”
There are certain U2 songs that sound as if excessive fussiness in the studio has buried what could have been a great song. If that’s not true for this Pop track, it sounds close. I’ve always thought the attempt at moodiness, with Bono singing the first few lines down an octave, torpedoes the song before it really starts, because the voice is so low in the mix it barely registers. But when the verse kicks in there’s a very sweet smokiness to the arrangement, especially Adam’s soft bass line. This is clearly another U2 attempt at sexiness, and if it doesn’t entirely land it does offer some elements to recommend it.

#131 – “Dirty Day”
Zooropa is arguably U2’s most experimental album, and this track, with its slow beginning, sounding as if the volume is slowly being raised on a song already playing, and the jangly, industrial clanging of the arrangement, is a pretty successful experiment. There’s an element of near-menace here, and the contrast with a sudden change in mood at the bridge is quite effective. The lyrics, all about guilt and betrayal, have some nice moments as well – “If you need someone to blame/Throw a rock in the air/You'll hit someone guilty.” The musical hook and build are nothing too memorable, which keep this interesting piece from ranking a bit higher.

#130 – “A Man and a Woman”
A side two track that’s pretty forgotten today from U2’s How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, this mid-tempo number is kind of the reverse of “Dirty Day.” The lyric and arrangement are pretty pedestrian, while the hook is, if not Top 50-level, still pretty catchy. “The mysterious distance between a man and a woman” works fine as a lyric, but sounds more banal the more you hear it.

#129 – “Red Light”
The “da-na-na” back-up singers at the beginning of this War cut might fool you into thinking at first that this is not a U2 song. The trumpets at the end don’t dissuade you either. But the Bono howl and the Edge guitar riff in the middle don’t lie. This is a fun song, if not one that’s lasted much. Frankly, if not for the trumpet solo (which is kind of awesome) it would probably not have ranked so high for me. 

#128 – “Rejoice”
Another deep October cut, this song has a very, very U2 riff at its center, and that opens the song. It’s got a great hurried, impatient, almost manic energy, with that young U2 message of wanting to make an impact but not knowing how very much present. “I can’t change the world/But I can change the world in me” pre-dates Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” by ten years or so. Add in some pretty harried, interesting Larry drumming, and you have a song that maybe is unfairly forgotten.

#127 – “Lady with the Spinning Head”
Back to the B-sides, here off of “One.” The main riff has a great cyclical energy, and the title is a fun one. This is one of those U2 songs that sounds like an earlier attempt at a song that made the album, with this one coming across as a more upbeat, manic “Mysterious Ways.” A fun listen, but definitely not anywhere near the level of the song it (maybe?) became.

#126 – “Stranger in a Strange Land”
I quite like the opening of this October track, which starts with a rapid, machine-gun riff, and then quickly slows down to a bass-driven mellower verse. That bass line is a real Adam keeper, all relaxed up-the-scale, down-the-scale funk-lite. The lyric is yet more 80s-era half sketched character stuff that kind of goes nowhere (“A soldier asked for a cigarette/His smiling face I can't forget/He looked like you across the street/But that's a long way here”), but the musical mix of styles sticks with you a little bit.

#125 – “Some Days Are Better Than Others”
Another Zooropa track, this a very mellow, shuffling song with some aphorism-driven lyrics that, with the “some days” connective tissue working throughout, hang together nicely (“Some days take less, but most days take more/Some slip through your fingers and onto the floor/Some days you're quick, but most days you're speedy/Some days you use more force than is necessary.”). The slapped drums in the chorus are a lot of fun, and Edge lets off a very playfully distorted, fuzz-box-full guitar solo partway through. A throwaway? Sure. But a fun one.

Until Whenever