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

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

U2 Ranked - #60 - #51

#60 – “The First Time”
A gorgeously simple ballad off of Zooropa, this song is another example of U2’s ability to build very simple elements into a really effective whole. A simple strummed guitar figure kicks things off, with Bono singing a soft, simple melody against it. For the first verse, apart from some ominous background thrum, that’s it. Then in the second verse, a secondary, equally simple, guitar figure is added in. Throughout, that background thrum deepens and diversifies, adding texture and tension in the background. And then, towards the end of the third verse, we get some piano chords. Sometimes simplicity like this can work so damn well – especially when the lyric is so spare and direct. “I have a lover/A lover like no other/She got soul, soul, soul, sweet soul/And she teach me how to sing.” Indeed. 

#59 – “Love and Peace or Else”
Another deeper cut off of How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, I love this song for many things, but maybe more than anything for the audacity of the title—especially as used by a band that gets tweaked about wanting to save the world perhaps a bit too much. And then there’s that groove. After maybe a little too much introductory table-setting slow-building guitar crunchiness and soft falsetto, we get a big drum hit and some soul singing from Bono. Then the groove, finally (at 1:30 in) hits, and it’s a fat, swaggering, muscular one, a bit of a punk riff—and it just lands. The angry, pissed-off, fed-up lyric, with its anger at the inability of the world to just cut it out with all of the killing each other already, works really well over that fat groove as well (“Lay down/Lay down your guns/All your daughters of Zion/All your Abraham sons”). 

#58 – “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me.”
When it was announced that Bono and the Edge were writing a Spider-Man musical to be directed by Julie Taymor, I, a pretty big U2, Julie Taymor, and Spider-Man fan was aghast. This just sounded like a train wreck – and at this point in history it looks like it will go down as just that. And so the idea of U2 contributing a song to a superhero movie soundtrack should be, on paper, equally unworkable. And yet, as is so often the case with this band, what shouldn’t work does well. “Hold Me . . .” was one of the singles off of the Batman Returns soundtrack, and while Seal’s “Kiss of the Rose” may have been the bigger hit off of that collection, this was a fine rock song in its own right. A catchy, chromatic descending riff defines the song, along with a siren-like synth part that warns away in the background. And the lyrics bring an edge not often found in superhero soundtracks (“They want you to be Jesus/They'll go down on one knee/But they'll want their money back/If you're alive at thirty-three/And you're turning tricks/With your crucifix/You're a star.”) Why such nakedly autobiographical lyrics are in a song meant for a Batman movie, who knows, but this is a pretty insinuating song.

#57 – “In God’s Country”
This deeper cut off of The Joshua Tree is one of the faster songs on that reflective album, with some wonderful work from the Edge on the propulsive, keening riff. 27 years later, some of the natural imagery may come off as a little cliché and generic (desert skies, dry rivers), but there are some very compelling lines here too, including the chorus (“Sleep comes like a drug in God's country/Sad eyes, crooked crosses, in God's country”). My favorite bit has to be when after the second chorus we get a drop out of the guitars and then a thick bass line before they come screaming back in. Nice theater, that.

#56 – “White as Snow”
Rock history is replete with examples of songwriters building songs out of classical riffs (“It’s Now or Never” is “O Sole Mio,” “Whiter Shade of Pale” is based on Bach’s “Air on a G String,” Paul Simon’s “American Tune” is Bach’s St. Mathews Passion, etc.). U2’s entry into this field is this song off of No Line on the Horizon, a slow, moody ballad that serves as the album’s antepenultimate song. The melody is taken from the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” U2 takes this hushed choral piece and turns the bones of the melody into a haunting look at war, with lyrics evoking the landscape in Afghanistan (“Now this dry ground it bears no fruit at all/Only poppies laugh under the crescent moon”). What pushes this song a few dozen spots up the ranking for me is Bono’s vocal, which is a career highlight. Just listen to the passion and pain he gets into the verse: “And the water, it was icy/As it washed over me/And the moon shone above me.” That’s singing, folks.

#55 – “Surrender”
This song has always struck me as an almost-hit. It feels like a strong single, but it never had the life fellow War tracks “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” “New Years Day,” and “40” did. That rare U2 track with female back-up singers, as well as a named character that the song is about (Sadie), there’s a kind of determined, stubborn bounciness to the main riff I’ve always liked. And the sliding, scooping nature of the sung “Surrender”s in the chorus are a very effective, intriguing choice. It’s also a lyrically strong song, with evocative details about Sadie’s life (“She tried to be a good girl and a good wife/Raise a good family, lead a good life/It's not good enough”) hinting at a bigger story under the surface. And let us not forget the chanted, chirpy ending, which, again, is a different sound for the band.

#54 – “Zooropa”
This title track from what is probably still U2’s most experimental album kicks things off with faint electronic hums, voices drifting in from the distance, a clanging in the background, churchy piano, and static—all (and not until the 1:50 mark) swept away by a squawky guitar spitting out a staccato riff that leads into a smoother, wah-wah-driven guitar sound that then itself settles into a smooth, relaxed groove. It’s one hell of an intro. And as you listen you realize it’s really part of an even more-extended intro, with, after two verses of the relaxed vibe, a final switch in mood and music taking place, keyed by that same squawky riff that changed things earlier. Here, the tempo changes and the arrangement gets more urgent, keeping in that mode until the end. This is an oddly structured, but fascinating song, with some trenchant lyrics criticizing the omnipresent commercial messages that blanket the world. An oddity, to be sure, but a great song.

#53 – “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”
This requisite U2 ballad, here off of How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, is a great example of the form. Written after Bono’s father’s death (and, if memory serves, sung by Bono at his funeral), this is an aching, truly felt, personal and passionate song about loss. I really love the simple, ringing riff the Edge came up with for the chorus, and the way Bono doesn’t deliver a treacly hagiography of a song but a personal reflection of a complicated relationship. “And it's you when I look in the mirror/And it's you when I don't pick up the phone.” That’s a neatly put way of talking about the good and the bad. But what really puts this song over the top for me is the bridge, where Bono sings a glorious high phrase, to the memory of his opera-loving father, to these words: “Can you hear me when I sing?/You're the reason I sing/You're the reason why the opera is in me.” If that doesn’t choke you up some . . . you are made of sterner stuff than I.

#52 – “The Wanderer”
Johnny Cash’s classic, country-based, story-driven style of songwriting and singing would seem to be a contrast to the more free-flowing, anthemic music of U2. And yet when the band got Cash to sing on the final track of Zooropa, a strange kind of alchemy was produced. Production aside, this is, as a piece of songwriting, much more in the Cash vein than the U2 vein. There’s a horsey kind of cowboy bass line (muffled by some studio manipulation into a more electronic sound than you’d usually get from Cash, but still) with Cash singing over it a tale of a man wandering through some kind of post-apocalyptic landscape, through images of burning rain, tin capitals, and churches. This is very much classic songwriting, and a reminder that there is much more to U2 than big anthems designed to fill stadiums. I have no idea where the idea came from to pair Cash and the band, but what a yield.

#51 – “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”
Man, as we get closer to the end, here just a song away from the top 50, we are getting real gems. This antepenultimate song off of Achtung Baby (yes, I like the word “antepenultimate”—deal with it) was a staple of the Zoo TV tour, and then came back on the band’s last tour, the mammoth 360 tour, as well. This is a great song, with its dance beat and chugging guitar riff, and the lyrics, like those on most of the songs on this album, are some of U2’s best. “You bury your treasure/Where it can't be found/But your love is like a secret/That's been passed around.” Another song of lost love, romantic betrayal with a searing bridge full of pain and anguish conveyed by some stellar vocals, with Bono at the end of his range, the strain conveying the pain so effectively. Man, these next 50 are going to be fun to write about!

Until Whenever