Tuesday, May 27, 2014

U2 Ranked - #70 - #61

#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.

Until Whenever

Monday, May 19, 2014

U2 Ranked - #80-#71

#80 – “Mothers of the Disappeared”
U2 album closers are a special lot. Often reflective, moody, even depressive, they tend not to finish off an album with a statement of bold uplift (though exceptions can be found), but rather in a reflective, often down mood. This is interesting to me given how much of U2’s reputation is built around soaring, inspirational anthems—that they so often opt to end on a down note is I think telling and indicative of how much more nuanced their worldview really is. “Mothers of the Disappeared,” which ends The Joshua Tree on just such a note, is a gorgeous song, slow, and stately, and reflective, and about a weighty topic. The titular “mothers” are the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, an association of Argentinean mothers whose children had been “disappeared” by the dictatorship. The group engaged in silent protests that inspired this song. I love the atmospherics of the opening here, with a rattling sound slowly coming into focus as a bass starts thumping and the drums start a quick cadence in the snare. Then the slow, lilting guitar figure begins, ascending the scale, then descending. It’s a beautifully simple theme that gets sung to by similarly simple lyrics. The verses are direct and unadorned – the first is “Midnight, our sons and daughters/Were cut down and taken from us/Hear their heartbeat/We hear their heartbeat.” It was during the Conspiracy of Hope Amnesty International tour that U2 was exposed to the Mothers—as was Sting, who wrote his own song inspired by their plight. This is U2 at its most nakedly political, yes, but also at its most eloquent. 

#79 – “When Love Comes to Town”
I have talked before in this series about how Rattle & Hum was such an attempt by the band to dive into American music, and how ill-received some of those efforts were. This song, a collaboration with blues legend BB King on both guitar and vocals, seems to have been well-received by King at least, seeing as how the song became a staple of his repertory in the ensuing years. U2’s blues explorations never really proceeded in earnest after this album, and yet it’s surprising how effective a blues song this is. Much of that is the authenticity King adds just by his presence, sure, but the lyrics are all Bono, and they really work in that blues idiom. King himself, in the clips included in the Rattle & Hum movie, makes note that these are, in his words, “heavy” lyrics: “I was there when they crucified my Lord/I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword/I threw the dice when they pierced his side/But I've seen love conquer the great divide.” Edge’s minimalist chords get buried under King’s artful solo work, but would you really expect any different? The backup singers, the shared vocals – every piece of this really does add up to a damn solid blues song. Who knew they had it in them?

#78 – “So Cruel”
Hey – look at that. It’s another album closer. Not quite as solemn as “Mothers of the Disappeared,” this Achtung Baby closer nonetheless fits the mold – slow, stately, and reflective. The music, though, is very different. The anchor here is a grand piano theme that repeats throughout the song – really just three notes, descending in a dramatic little mini-theme. Achtung Baby is famously a “break-up” album – songs of lost love, betrayal, and ache dominate, and it’s certainly no coincidence that the Edge was going through a painful divorce while they were writing and recording the album. This is a song of painful, pained loss, with lyrics like “I disappeared in you/You disappeared from me/I gave you everything you ever wanted/It wasn't what you wanted” soaking the music in a half-angry/half-sad mood. I also love how the music builds but never leaves that primal three-note mini-theme. The drums get more insistent, the guitar gets more prominent, synths add to the drama, and yet every verse comes back to the piano theme. I don’t know that U2 ever performed this song live (it certainly wasn’t a mainstay of the tour), and that really makes sense – this is U2 as a studio band, and a damn great one at that.

ETA: Thanks to commentator Randy Perry for noting that "So Cruel" does NOT close the album, but closed Side 1. Can you tell I first came to this album on cassette?

#77 – “Electrical Storm”
When U2 released their second greatest hits album, an album highlighting the years from 1990 – 2000, they included two brand-new songs, as bands are wont to do. This one was the more traditional U2 song of the pair (the other was the song the band wrote for Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York – “The Hands That Built America.” More on that one later.) “Electrical Storm” features a very classic-sounding U2 riff, reaching and ringing. While the band is hardly breaking new ground for them here, I really do like this song, and the anxious, churning way the music moves forward, and the tension they find in Bono’s straining vocals and the pounding pulse of the melody. 

#76 – “Van Diemen’s Land”
Another rarity, this is a song written, played, and sung by the Edge. It’s really an Edge solo song. A very simple ballad, sung over a chiming guitar figure that sounds like it was written for an acoustic guitar, with no chorus, but just a repeated verse, this folk-sounding song sounds like a lost Dylan song that the Edge had discovered. It’s U2 (or, OK, the Edge) playing in a form they usually don’t (no one would ever mistake U2 for a folk band), and while those experiments don’t always pay off, they often do – and this is an example of it paying off quite well. 

#75 – “Slow Dancing”
Like the Frank Sinatra song discussed earlier, this is a song U2 wrote for another artist – here, Willie Nelson. Like “Van Diemen’s Land,” this is a simple, ballad, here played on acoustic guitar. And while it may not really have the country elements you might expect, it really does sound like a Willie Nelson song, and indeed Nelson did record the song with the band, in a version released as a B-side to the “If God Will Send His Angels” single. I love the simplicity of this song, but have to admit to preferring the smokiness and regret Bono gets into his version. 

#74 – “Do You Feel Loved”
This track, the second track on Pop, has always been a favorite, and I have always been surprised that it wasn’t bigger—even among U2’s fans—than it was. A shuffling, electronic beat kicks things off, with a pleasant-enough up-and-down U2 guitar figure. And then a second guitar figure comes in, this one more schizophrenic, stuttering and stopping and not as neatly symmetrical as a typical U2 guitar line. With the “traditional” sound interrupted by an “edgier” sound, it’s almost as if the experimentation of Pop itself is being represented. And then the driving bass line comes in—a bass line that mirrors that opening “traditional” figure—and you realize what the true engine behind the song is. It’s an interesting bit of musical jujitsu, in the see-saw of traditional to experimental and back, and it really adds an interesting quality to the song. And all of this is before Bono has even sing a word. The song itself, with its sexual vibe and sexual lyrics (“Love's a bully pushing and shoving/In the belly of a woman/Heavy rhythm taking over”), has a very intriguing note of menacing temptation to it, and the chorus, with its repeated plea of a question (“Do you feel loved?”), expertly casts a mood. No, I’m not really sure why this didn’t catch on. 

#73 – “October”
I do not play a musical instrument, nor am I all that technically sophisticated about music, as anyone reading these entries will soon realize. I do, however, read music, and can pick out melodies and chords on a piano, if not “play.” So as a young U2 enthusiast, I glommed onto the title song of October with particular interest – a U2 song played entirely on piano? With chords simple enough for me to actually play through them? I annoyed more family members, I’m sure, with my halting, still-not-very-adept attempts at playing this simple U2 ballad, than I even realized at the time. So do I have this song ranked maybe a little higher than it should be, thanks to a bit of the ‘ol nostalgia? Sure. But it is a fine song, an autumnal, spare, aching song with very little in the way of vocals – this is really U2 doing mood, and not much more. I love it.

#72 – “Cedars of Lebanon”
There must be something about album closers that makes me like them right in that top 70s sweet spot. This is the last U2 song to close an album, finishing off their last album, No Line on the Horizon, and it is a very different piece of work. It’s not a rap song, but the vocal is delivered in a less-sung, more-intoned way. The overall affect is one of exhausted, sleep-deprived stream of consciousness – effective, given that this seems to be that rare U2 song sung by a character, here a reporter working in a war-torn country: “Yesterday I spent asleep/Woke up in my clothes in a dirty heap/Spent the night trying to make a deadline/Squeezing complicated lives into a simple headline.” The lazy beat, simple guitar line, the half-whispered voice Bono employs—all add wonderfully to the effect. And then we get to what seems like a chorus and a moment of a chiming falsetto duet, so very brief and so very effective because of that brevity. This is a very different U2 song, but a very interesting one.

#71 – “The Hands That Built America”
And now we get to that other 19909-200 Best Of add-on. U2 won the Golden Globe for this song, but lost the Oscar to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” – a scenario they repeated this year with “Ordinary Love.” This is a pretty purple song, with its strings at the beginning over plaintive piano, but, hey, sometimes purple works. This is very much U2 in earnest mode (“Oh, my love, it's a long way we've come/From the freckled hills to the steel and glass canyons/From the stony fields to hanging steel from sky/From digging in our pockets for a reason not to say goodbye.”), but if I haven’t made clear by now that I am perfectly fine with earnest U2 then I have failed at a pretty fundamental level. What bumps this song up a few dozen spots for me is the bridge, where Bono lets loose an operatic wail that we had never heard from him before. It’s kind of thrilling, and I absolutely love how much he just lets it all hang out there. I sound like I’m apologizing, but for whatever its worth, I really do love this song.

Until Whenever