Ruminations on TV Shows, Comics, And Music
This was the first U2 album where I got to see the hate for it in real time. It's also the first album I was able to buy the week it came out.
I don't have a good track record with buying new albums by my favorite bands. For some reason, if I'm compelled to get something when it's new, it ends up being Guns'N'Roses The Spaghetti Incident, Bruce Springsteen's Human Touch, or Metallica's Reload.
But I still like Zooropa. Whereas Rattle & Hum seemed like U2 had failed on creating the album they set out to make, I feel like Zooropa is exactly what it was advertised to be, and if you liked the idea, you liked the album. It's just that the idea of an album mostly based on advertising and the omnipresence of capitalism is a tough sell at any time, but particularly in a 1994 where an entire generation of rock bands from the 80s were realizing that grunge/alternative rock hadn't just paused their careers but had actually ended their ability to get hit musics on the charts. Probably forever.
While certain songs on Achtung Baby felt overproduced, to the detriment of the music, all of the overproduction on Zooropa feels intentional, and a necessary part of the song.
I think people were also at a loss because U2 is always So Serious. "Even Better Than The Real Thing" was a fun single on an otherwise serious album, but Zooropa often sounds serious when it's being deliberately ridiculous.
Much like "Zoo Station" is .the essential introductory track to Achtung Baby, so too must Zooropa start with "Zooropa". The first forty-five second crashing basslines and building guitar of "Zoo Station" let you know what you were in for. "Zooropa" has a two minute build of piano and sound clips (mainly George H.W. Bush saying peace talks over and over until they don't mean anything) before a melody comes in for an additional twenty seconds before the lyrics kick in.
I used the term "bumper sticker wisdom" for a lot of the lyrics on Achtung Baby. "Zooropa" avoids that by using actual advertising slogans as lyrics. The idea is that we are now in a futuristic European city that has a sort of Blade-Runnery advertising focus (you know, like the horrible present we are currently living in). This was somehow released as an introductory single. As with "The Fly" being the introductory single for Achtung Baby, I don't understand why they did this. I had a few friends who were as into U2 as I was, and our common belief was that they deliberately released the least radio playable track as the lead single just to see what happened.
In this alternate universe the first single climbs out of "Zooropa". "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" got scrubbed off our universe's Zooropa and saved for the Batman Forever Soundtrack. To me, its narrative about rock stardom is a necessary expansion of U2's de-evolution into advertising and other forms of media. Plus, the suggestion of the video (it repeats sequences too often for the video to actually work, but the conceit is cool) that Bono is caught between two of his Zoo TV personalities: Macphisto and The Fly, to the point where he's no longer Bono is interesting.
There is a fuzzy changing of channels effect before we get the Bolshevik intro to "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Car", a song about how the subject of the song is too privileged to be affected by their failure. Is it a surfacey song about a young "princess" whose father protects her from the world, or is it about how, now matter how badly U2 fails, their record company and management team is there to protect them? You be the judge.
The song ends in a spiral of Bono proudly reciting the days of the week, which brings us perfectly into "Some Days Are Better Than Others", a simplistic track about how life is different from day to day. I have edited out a line in the song that didn't age well, and shouldn't have been included, even at the time.
There is a proper fade out to "Some Days Are Better Than Others" that leads into the first track with a guest vocalist. Johnny Cash is the lead vocalist for "The Wanderer", which U2 put at the end of the album, where they love to put their ideas of new hymns. I think the idea of closing the album with this track was that they'd stripped out much of (but not all) of the grungy new U2 sound, and that the next album would be more back to basics. But that's not at all what happened, so I'm moving this toward the beginning where it's just an interesting sonic oddity. It also echoes the theme of Just Another Day from the previous track, as it follows a guy who leaves his house one day and chronicles what keeps him wandering. Of course it's overly and overtly religious, but it you take out Jesus's name and replace it with Elvis, it could easily be about Bono's choice of being a rock star and how it affects the family he left behind.
Clicking out of the countrified U2 sound is a ridiculous dance song. I cut a minute or so out of this version of "Lemon" back before I was more adept at sound editing, so there's a brief volume rise where I've spliced out a bunch of the chorus.. This All Macphisto vocals or "fat lady falsetto" that Bono uses all over this album renders any seriousness that this song intends moot. It's a song about Bono's mom wearing a yellow dress? Sure. It's use as the third single from this album only accentuates what a ridiculous album this is.
U2 released a soundtrack to the film The Million Dollar Hotel. It's not good. Don't bother seeking it out. But I do like "The Ground Beneath Her Feet", a song Bono swiped from Salman Rushdie. It's the most Irish track since "Tomorrow" from October but it definitely has the Zooropa style drumming and guitar effects.
The second guest vocal track from the album comes from Sinead O'Connor as she takes the lead on "The Thief Of Your Heart". This is one of three tracks I've taken from the In The Name Of The Father soundtrack, a film about four people falsely convicted for a terrorist bombing in Ireland. Unlike The Million Dollar Hotel, I do suggest you investigate this movie and soundtrack. They're both great.
In fact, the next track is the title track, "In The Name Of The Father", where Bono trades off lead vocals with Gavin Friday.
Marvin Gaye is the next guest vocalist, despite having been dead for a decade before Zooropa's release. "Save The Children" from Inner City Blues: The Music Of Marvin Gaye keeps up the bombastic and earnest U2 that the band tried to step away from in the 90s, but which is creeping its way back into their image and their non-album tracks. While these heavier tracks do not come from the original Zooropa album. I enjoy having the album see-saw between Earnest U2 and Silly Zooropa U2.
The second single from the album, Numb is the logical successor to the intro track. Sound samples are spliced behind lead vocalist, The Edge, as he monotones a list poem style song about sensory overload while playing with the band. Bono does background vocals here, presumably as Macphisto.
Put your dancing shoes back on. The third track to makes its way from In The Name Of The Father, and the second to have Bono sharing lead vocals with Gavin Friday, is "Billy Boola". This song is pure misguided sexuality. The lyrics are inspid and stupid Baby'e a big flirt / nipples in a t-shirt coming not to soon after Oh pa coca cola E A O / E suck-a-dick-a exactly the quality of lyrics you'd expect from ... nobody involved with U2. This song is a weird anomoly in their catalogue, but the beat is super catchy.
Returning to Zooropa proper, we have "Babyface" which is lyrically similar to "Lemon", which is creepy as one is about the supermodels the band hung out with, and the other is Bono singing about an old video of his mom.
Buzzing beneath the surface of the song is another cover. "Night And Day" was released before Achtung Baby in our universe, as a track on Red Hot + Blue: A Tribute To Cole Porter but it feels more Zooropa to me. I actually somewhat prefer the Steel String Remix, and was going to put that on Desire, but it has a wonky start, and I was having trouble editing it down into a more manageable length. So this version gets put on Zooropa instead.
The fourth and final single from the album is easily my favorite track. "Stay (Faraway, So Close) was on a jukebox in the snack bar of my high school. One of my friends used to play this song at least twice a day while we ran lines form Romeo & Juliet. Bono's operatic ascent into falsetto is one of his best vocal performances on any album.
"The First Time" is a good closing track. As it seems to be the story of the person from "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car" growing up, taking responsibility and leaving "daddy" behind. Plus it has Edge doing his pounding chord piano technique.
But, fuck it, the album isn't over yet. I LOVE the Junk Day remix of "Dirty Day" that U2 released for Pop. Bono's vocals are better, and the song deserves the filthier bass line.
Actually closing out the album is a song that showed up on Desire but was remixed here. As much as I love the other version, I did like the conceit of the album still ending with a track featuring guest vocals by a country musician, so here is "Slow Dancing" with Willie Nelson on lead vocals, as the band originally intended.
My website is currently in transition, so I'm unable to upload my version of the album. If you're interested in it, e-mail me, and I'll send a copy your way.
The track listing is:
2. Hold Me Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me
3. Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car
4. Some Days Are Better Than Others
7. The Ground Beneath Her Feet
8. The Thief Of Your Heart
9. In The Name Of The Father
10. Save The Children
12. Billy Boola
14. Night And Day
15. Stay (Faraway, So Close!)
16. The First Time
17. Dirty Day
18. Slow Dancing
There's a term in professional wrestling for when a beloved character grows stale and has to reinvent themselves as a terrible person, it's called Turning Heel. After the finished product of Rattle & Hum (which I have stricken from this universe and replaced with Desire) didn't turn out as planned, and got U2 its first (but far from last) backlash from fans, the band decided to take some time off. For three years, the band avoided The United States, finishing their Lovetown Tour in Australia, Asia, and Europe, and then announcing they were going away "to dream it up all again".
But what we they do? Backtrack to The Unforgettable Fire? Go back to the full-time job of trying to save the universe through banal lyrics? The eighties were over, man. They needed something new. No more cowboy hats and brown leather vests. No more slick backed pony tails and pouty lips. It was time for the band to learn a new language.
From the opening notes of the album, it's clear that U2 has learned another language. It isn't until the lyrics drop that you realize that the language they've been studying is irony. The music steals more from European dance music, and American alternative than the Blues and Folk rock of their previous albums, and their lyrics, while still using the list poem style that popped up on Desire, their focus is more on personal confusion than political platitudes or love songs. "Zoo Station" drops you in the midst of chaos with its heavy bassline and the dancey drum style that Mullen Jr played around with on "God (Part 2)" from Desire. Time is a train/Makes the future the past/Leaves you standing in the station/Your face pressed up against the glass. That's right, U2 is now that high school kid or college freshman who "drops knowledge" on you. Ugh.
The dancing keeps going, as the popping of bubbly ... keyboards? ... leads us into "Lady With The Spinning Head", a B-side in our universe that the band cannibalized to make "Zoo Station", "The Fly", "Ultra Violet Light My Way", and "Wake Up Dead Man", if not more. It continues the ridiculousness and feeling of being lost from the first track, eventually spinning out into a cover of "Can't Help Falling In Love" featuring an interview with young Elvis Presley in the background, as Bono explores his lower register and falsetto in a single verse chorus bridge chorus.
The drum line brings us right into "So Cruel" (which is not a cover of Presley's "Don't Be Cruel". Edge has previously used his piano skills to evoke the feeling of an orchestra. Here, it feels like a sample, as the three notes occasionally fall into the background. We also get a love song here that isn't a fawning ballad for some perfect being, but rather Bono trying to figure out his feelings towards someone who he perceives is leading him on.
Sometimes I feel like I don't know / Sometimes I feel like checking out. "Ultra Violet (Light My Way)" is another contender for my favorite U2 song. Though I actually prefer The Killers cover from Ahk-Toong Bay-Bi. I like the song, even though it contains the word baby about a billion times.When I was so messed up / I heard opera in my head / Your love was a lightbulb / hanging over my bed is a great evolution in songwriting for Bono.
"Trying To Throw Your Arms Around The World" almost feels like a song from Macphisto (one of many characters Bono invented for the Zoo Station Tour that supported Achtung Baby) to young Bono. Sure, it's surfacey a song about rescuing a drunk woman from harming herself, but I think young Bono is the woman he's addressing (how progressive alternative universe 1991 Bono). There is some more bumper sticker wisdom in the song, but it's still pretty catchy.
I never understood how "The Fly" was the first single from this album. It has my favorite lyrics from the album Every artist is a cannibal / Every poet is a thief / All kill their inspiration / Then sing about their grief, but it has never seemed like single material to me. So I'm stripping it of its single status. It is married to the album. But probably in an open relationship. I've remixed this version so that is descends into the "Lounge Fly Mix" because I love the peppy little outro, but not enough to include the entire remix in place of the original.
There a couple of album versions of songs from Achtung Baby that I can't stand. I don't know if it's Flood's engineering, but there are a few tracks that seem wildly overproduced. They try so hard to be grungey that they wash out the positive qualities of the songs. But, like "Zoo Station", the grungey quality of the guitars and production, and the somewhat buried vocals on "Acrobat" work really well, partly because they bury that recurring bumper stickerism in the lyrics. Yes, yes, Bono, I'll watch out for grinding bastards.
I may come back and fill in two albums between Desire and Achtung Baby. One will be a live album called Wide Awake In America and the other will be the "best of" their original recording sessions for Achtung Baby, which were stolen and released as bootlegs. They're not album quality, but I rather like them. "Salome" is one of the tracks that they salvaged from the bootlegs and turned into a B-Side. I like it as pushing the album further into the weird Eurodance direction they were aimed in.
In our universe the album foolishly closes with "Love Is Blindness". I get it. It's ballady. The organ intro is haunting. I really like the song. But it's clearly not the closer for this album.
We're back to covers! U2 really wants to be The Rolling Stones of the late 20th / early 21st century. I've never understood this. I would always prefer to be The Beatles. None of the crossovers of U2 and The Rolling Stones have been particularly good, Bono's "Silver & Gold" with Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood got cut from this universe entirely. It never happened. You should also never have to watch Mick Jagger and U2 butcher "Gimme Shelter" at The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, where Mick Jagger surprises everyone by being the weakest singer on a stage with both Bono and Fergie of The Black Eyed Peas. Historically, he's more legendary, but in that moment of time he was unlistenably bad. But U2's cover of "Paint It Black" is so desperately wannabe punk in an endearing way that is almost sounds like the U2 from Boytober got their hands on the U2 from Achtung Baby's instruments. This flows directly into their cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son", which has the same energy.
We are super deep in the album to get to the first single, but here we are. "Mysterious Ways"is a catchy head-kick, and a great radio introduction to the new sound for U2 fans who were cautious about buying this due to their feelings about the previous album. The production is weird. The lyrics are very 90s If you want to kiss the sky / better learn how to kneel / On your knees boy. I actually struggled with whether to include my favorite version which begins with an athmospheric mix called "Magic Hour" before the drums of the "Temple Bar Edit" crash in, but the original was so integral to how I perceived this era of U2, that I felt it was necessary to include it.
On the flipside of that, the third single from the album is "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses". I'm including the single version as opposed to the album version. I find the album version astoundingly overproduced, so much so that I can't enjoy the lyrics. This is another song that has a great cover on Ahk-Toong Bay-Bi, this time by another overproduced 90s band, Garbage.
But back to the dance! I love the dark descent of "Until The End Of The World". The screechy guitars of the beginning. The narrative story style lyrics. I was drowning my sorrows / But my sorrows / they learned to swim is my favorite set of lyrics plagiarised from Frida Kahlo.
The final single in this universe is my least favorite single from our universe (I know, I know, I removed "The Fly"s single status, even though I like the song better), but it's not the worst. We'll just say that in the alternate universe, Coca-Cola uses it to promote whatever product they released that year to be even better than "the real thing" their original recipe. Plus, how can you erase from history the spinning camera that was invented for the video, and christened Even Better Than The Wheel Thing?
Closing out the album is the second single, and another all-time favorite, "One". There is an alternate alternate U2 history in a book I started writing ages ago about a fictional rock star. That rock star's family is killed in an IRA attack that also kills The Edge, during the era between Desire and a wildly premature All That You Can't Leave Behind. In that canon, that vocalist and guitarist joins U2 for one album, this one. He's in hiding for a couple of years, and his first appearance is on a late show appearance with U2, debuting this song. Have you come here for forgiveness / Have you come to raise the dead / Have you come here to play Jesus / to the lepers in your head are the first lyrics he sings after his family dies, and the media paints him as ... well, maybe someday I'll write that book, and you can read about it. I like this song in every alternate timeline.
I realize that my description of these songs doesn't make the bound sound heelish. In fact, it was their behavior on tour and in interviews that gave the impression. Bono in a trash-bag looking black leather jacket and wrap around sunglasses at all hours of the night (later, he explained this was to fight his glaucoma, but he could have picked less douchey looking glasses), smoking cigarettes and speaking in a whiney voice about the state of the world. Bono prank calling politicians from the stage of their multimedia soaked tour. Ok, so it's mostly Bono who turns heel, but nobody else in the band appears to be trying to stop him.
Because they still don't talk to the press in this universe, we don't know that the band nearly broke up over the change in direction between albums. We don't know that Mullen and Clayton hate the change, but love the lifestyle. We just know that there is a major leap between Desire and Achtung Baby that most bands don't ever make, and almost no bands make succesfully. Unfortunately, many fans will feel that the era between Achtung Baby and All That You Can't Leave Behind are bleak and soulless. I disagree. And I'm looking forward to sharing my version of Zooropa.
I don't know if there is a moment when a person becomes insufferable. But I know there is often a moment when you come to the conclusion that a person or group of people is insufferable. And for a lot of people, U2 became insufferable with the release of their documentary, Rattle & Hum. With its deep stares out windows, long political rants, fixation on the band's relations to famous American rock pioneers, and bland covers of obvious songs ("All Along The Watchtower"? Really? "Helter Skelter"? Come on.), it is a tough watch for a night at the movies, but a fun watch for a night at home, taking a shot every time someone says something pretentious.
The backlash was so severe, and so understood by the band that they changed their entire image, and drenched themselves in irony before they released their next album.
This was the second U2 album I owned. It contained live versions of some of the songs I enjoyed from the previous album. The gospel choir version of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking Far" is still, in my opinion, far superior to the original. Depending on the day, I go back and forth about whether the Joshua Tree or Rattle & Hum version of "Bullet The Blue Sky" is my favorite. I really enjoyed the whole album at the time.
I wouldn't call it "good".
For this alternate universe I've removed all the live tracks. All of them. Every interview clip, gone. I've inserted a few b-sides and covers, but they're not the covers that appeared on "Rattle & Hum". This version is so different, that I think it deserves a different name, so I'm calling it "Desire". The cover at is the art from the "Desire" single. Shadowy Larry Mullen Jr. is my favorite band member from this era.
Whereas The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree started with atmospheric music, and then the lyrics crept in, Desire starts off with brief, janky calliope music, and then Larry Mullen Jr. starts pounding on some drums. Everything about this album is American, in a way only four white dudes from Not America could conceive. The music sounds like it's written to filled a vast, empty landscape. The lyrics are all about love and longing (hence the title).
"Hawkmoon 269" sounds like it was conceived of in a creative writing class, where the instructor said "Write some lyrics about love, using only similes." This is not a dig. I really like the lyrics in this song because they are dopeily simple. Bono just needs your love, guys. GIVE HIM YOUR LOVE OR HE WILL CONTINUE TO WRITE SIMILES ABOUT HOW MUCH HE NEEDS YOUR LOVE. I also love the choir that builds behind the final verse. It's possible Bono actually wrote this song from this alternate universe, as he's always maintained that the title comes from a town he passed through in the Dakotas called Hawkmoon. But no such town exists in the universe I live in.
If Bono were more a metaphor guy than a simile guy, then "Heartland" would be a flat song. And while he's not on perfect pitch for this whole song, he's not nearly as flat as he was on The Unforgettable Fire. He is occasionally breathy, especially when he says "Heartland". Luckily, that's not, like, the most used word in the song.
While I wouldn't call this album joyous, there is a lot more love and contented wonder contained in this album than any that proceed it. It's more joyously adolescent than Boy, whose whole premise was surviving adolescence.
The first single, is the eponymous song, "Desire". I love this song. I, unironically, love the lyrics, even though I don't know why the red guitar is on fire. While I don't think the concept of desire is uniquely American, we do have a flavor of desire that the tone of this song encapsulates. It's all over money money money money money money /money money money money money money/and the fever is getting higher. I think I recall this song being used to advertise the NBA playoffs at the beginning of the 21st century, and instead of thinking "sellouts", I thought "That actually makes sense. Both for what it's advertising, and to be a song that you sell the rights to for advertising."
If you want an uncomfortable and awkward explanation about why U2 was obsessed with Elvis Presley, you can check out the Rattle & Hum documentary. If you want to hear an absolutely wretched song about it, you can look up their song "Elvis Presley And America", which does not exist in my alternate reality. If you just want a general sense for their Elvis reverence, "A Room At The Heartbreak Hotel" should suffice. In our universe, it was a B-side for "Desire", but I think it's just as good as anything on the album, particularly the choir repeating the song title ad nauseum at the end before finally deciding to say hallelujah.
As I mentioned in the preamble, there were some very On The Nose American covers on Rattle & Hum that I didn't want to include. But, in the spirit of the album I've included two covers that seem more surprisingly American. First off is a hit from Robert Knight called "Everlasting Love". This is a very American song that's not part of The Great American Songbook, nor is it from The Overplayed Book Of American White Dudes.
Next up is a reverse cover. "Slow Dancing" is a song that Bono wrote for Willie Nelson (that version will show up later). It was written during the sessions for Zooropa, which is three albums away. But it *sounds* like it should have been recorded in the late eighties, so I'm putting it here.
Climbing out of "Slow Dancing" is the final cover for the album, "Unchained Melody". A Righteous Brothers song that seemed omnipresent in soundtracks for 1980s movie, but actually was only on the soundtrack to Ghost in 1990. But, oh was that song everywhere in 1990. The song was also popularized by a cover by Elvis, recorded on the final concert film he made before he died. I hate to think that they only recorded it because of its Elvis connection, but it seems, given some of the interviews from Rattle & Hum, that that's probably the case. Luckily, those interviews never took place in this alternate universe, and we can believe that U2 were just really big Righteous Brothers fans.
It's wailing harmonica time, America. And Bono still needs your love. He needed it in "Hawkmoon 269", he needed it in "Everlasting Love", he needed it in "Unchained Melody", and he needs it to rescue him now in "Love Rescue Me". The horns here are also very American, but not as American as some impending horns on this album. This song is the most How An Irish Guy In His Thirties Might Imagine An American Cowboy Song Would Sound. It even has some Biblical lines.
I first heard "Dancing Barefoot" on the Threesome soundtrack. I didn't realize it was a Patti Smith cover, because I was an ignorant teenager. I don't remember anything about the movie Threesome. Even looking at the cover of the album now makes me shrug. I don't know what enticed me to pick it up, aside from my need to own all things U2. But I do still enjoy their cover, but not as much as the original.
"When Love Comes To Town", the third single from the album , features BB King on vocals. BB's growls are super American. At the time of the recording he had recently been inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, part of the second ever group of musicians voted in. Like virtually all performers who record duets with Bono, King outsings him by a wide, wide margin. It's also good to hear Lucille (King's guitar) take center stage, as opposed to The Edge's unnamed guitar.
I mentioned in the preamble that U2 is about to change almost every aspect of their music. They're about to go super dancey. There is a fantastically fun remix of "Desire" that has a ton of news samples, as well as heavy use of sirens. "God (Part 2)" also has that dancey feel, but without the samples. It's an interesting preview of what's to come on Achtung Baby. It's also got a similar list poemy feel that opened the album on "Hawkmoon 269" centered on faith and belief, as opposed to romantic love.
Taking the tone back to acousticy Americana, we get "Hallelujah (Here She Comes)", another "Desire" B-side. Rarely do I let a song fully fade out, without bringing up another track on these albums, but I like letting this song simmer out in preparation for the next track.
The second single, "Angel Of Harlem" is the brassiest, Americanest song U2 has ever recorded. I wish it weren't about New York City, the most cliche American city to write about. But I love the horns. It's so 80s American rock.
The final track is also the final single, "All I Want Is You" is probably U2's most spic-sounding ballad. Definitely it's most bombastic. In contrast to the first track, Bono is now concerned with what the object of his affection wants. Though he immediately reminds the person that he has only one want YOU. ALL HE WANTS IS YOU. GIVE HIM YOUR YOU. His implication that you are being metaphorical in your desires, while his is pretty straight-forward is a great way to end an album where Bono has been constantly demanding that you love him.
I really do think this album is heads and shoulders better than Rattle & Hum, as its more direct in theme, and doesn't suffer from "Is it a live album? Is it a studio album? Who is this person quietly talking to Larry Mullen Jr before we are suddenly listening to a live track where The Edge is singing lead vocals?" "Were Satan and Adam" (the name of a singing duo) "properly paid for the thirty seconds of Freedom For My People that's randomly inserted into the album?"
I hadn't listened to the proper album, in its entirety, for years before I started making my own versions of U2's discography. But I do find myself, on occasion, putting "Desire" on, when I get nostalgic for U2's Americana phase.
For a wide variety of reasons, in the universe I a m living in, and you are likely reading this from, 2016 was a bummer of a year. Amongst the reasons: the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, and Tom Petty. The American Presidential Election and the creation and subsequent vote on Brexit were also mentally taxing horror shows, but those have only gotten worse. Bowie, Prince, and Petty haven't been continually killed in worse and more horrifying ways in the intervening three years. None of your horrible relatives have, without anyone asking, repeatedly made public their views that rock stars deserve to die horrible deaths because a room-temperature IQed reality star with a history of not paying bills or being able to finish a sentence said so.
I chose to grieve by making my own alternate reality discographies of the deceased musical icons. I shared some with friends, and merely commented on making others. No one had any controversial takes on making the mixes. But when I mentioned that I hadn't touched Prince's Purple Rain because this reality's version was perfect, a couple of my friends, who are bigger and more loyal Prince fans than I am, offered remixes and alternative tracks to improve Purple Rain. They were mostly correct.
U2's The Joshua Tree has a similar touchstone significance for U2 fans to Prince fans feelings about Purple Rain. It's the album that brought the most people into the artists' hearts and ears.
In 2017, U2 launched a tour where they mostly just played songs from the thirty year old album, or from the sets they played when touring for The Joshua Tree. This may have had something to do with the commercial failures of their most recent two albums, but fans were excited by the roving nostalgia of the tour conceit.
Is it perfect? Of course not. Though I have a frequent loiterer/antagonist/contrarian who, whenever U2 is brought out, is quick to point out his incorrect opinion that the only good songs in the U2 catalog are from The Joshua Tree, and that they should have disbanded when it was over. Nobody likes that guy. And his feelings about U2 aren't even in the top hundred reasons that nobody likes that guy.
I mentioned during the alternate universe Unforgettable Fire post that it's my favorite album. Still, I erased one song from it entirely (the agonizingly out of tune and boring "Elvis Presley And America". I have not erased any songs from The Joshua Tree. I have merely rearranged them, and added some B-Sides and once-lost tracks from the albums that have shown up on subsequent rereleases of the album. The singles aren't as buried on the album as they were on The Unforgettable Fire, partially because they're stronger, but mostly because there's more of them. Enjoy!
"Deep In The Heart" could have come from The Unforgettable Fire. It has the atmospheric start, and the less-focused lyrics, as well as Bono being more experimental with his vocals. It also sets an interesting tone. We're certainly going to get to some political tracks on this album, but instead of setting a rebellious tone, this opening track is about trying to make everything work out tonight. A noble goal.
Another...another...love song? Bono sings a song about his wife and her ... "Spanish Eyes" ??? From what I can gather "Spanish Eyes" is a term Irish people have used for Irish men and women with dark hair and eyes. It seems not so much offensive, as I've not found any negative connotations to the term, just factually inaccurate. Bono's growling during a non-political song gives the song a sense of fun urgency that the lyrics support, but which I rather enjoy.
Building out of it is one of the best riffs the band has ever written. The first single from the album is "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For". A love song about faith built on Christian gospel that never namedrops Christ but uses Biblical imagery. This song is best performed by or with a gospel choir (we'll get to that later in the discography), but even the original is catchy as misguided religious beliefs.
Due to the band (in this alternate dimension)'s ban on talking about politics off-stage, U2's tour through Nicaragua and El Salvador seemed merely to be the act of taking their act to countries that big European rock bands rarely visited. That the band came out of the experience with "Mothers Of The Disappeared" is rarely mentioned in articles about them. But the heart of this song is the plight of South American prisoners. The lyrics are more focused than those from The Unforgettable Fire, but just as poetic. The song is too haunting to bury as the last track. It's also one of Bono's best vocal performances to date.
Twanging through the discorporating clouds of "Mothers Of The Disappeared" is "Running To Stand Still", a much more articulate and lush narrative about addiction than The Unforgettable Fire's "Bad". This song is in contention for my favorite U2 track ever. The Edge even breaks out his piano for the first time since War! And the guitar was actually written by producer Daniel Lanois. Unlike "Tomorrow" where U2 matches the Irishness of the lyrics with more stereotypical Irish instruments and arrangement, here U2 goes more American Blues with Bono even playing harmonica to close out the song.
"Race Against Time" harkens back a bit to "Alex Descends Into Hell For A Bottle Of Milk" with the song building around the bass track, and repeated lyrics, as opposed to a verse/chorus structure. It's a nice build to the lapping "Waves Of Sorrow", which is probably Bono's weakest vocal performance on this album. His voice breaks the way it frequently did on War. While the use of Biblical imagery work really well in songs like "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", they're super heavy handed here. I really enjoy the chanting quality of the final three verses, though.
Drums and harmonica, like light beer and Twinkies, signal that we're about to get really Really American. "Trip Through Your Wires" delivers a decidedly American edge to U2's sound. Even Biblical imagery and Edge's jangly guitar can't move the song back across The Atlantic. And that's fine.
"Trip Through Your Wires" repeatedly mentions how thirsty Bono is, so it's good that he follows it up with "Walk To The Water". We also continue talking about a nebulous woman. Is it the same woman from "Spanish Eyes"? From "Running To Stand Still"? We seem to be tracking her progress much the way we were following the subject of "Running To Stand Still". Hmmm.
The fifth single from the album (we'll get to numbers two through four) is "The Sweetest Thing". A fun summer love song that, like "Spanish Eyes" was written about Bono's wife, Ali. The lyrics are dopey as hell but in a much more acceptable way then when Bono goes Heavy. I also appreciate how Bono's voice goes fairly parroty instead of his usual falsetto when he goes high.
The fourth single from the album is the most political U2 single since "Sunday Bloody Sunday" [take that, "Pride (In The Name Of Love)"!]. Edge's guitar playing on "Bullet The Blue Sky" is phenomenal and Very American. Clayton's bassline is simple but unrelenting. Mullen's drums harken back to War. And Bono's lyrics are some of his finest, even when he goes all Biblical again, with the story of Jacob wrestling the angel, and the returning image of burning crosses. In our universe the lyric From the locust wind/comes a rattle and hum gives the title to their next album. But, spoiler alert, that's not the name of the next album in this alternate discography. In this universe, they do not release an album with that title.
"Bullet The Blue Sky" ends with Bono talking about refugees who run into the arms of America, which, coincidentally is the title of the Alan Ginsberg poem that serves as the lyrics to "Drunk Chicken (America)". Ginsberg is even the vocalist for this track. I'm not a huge fan of Ginsberg, but I do like this poem, even if I wish it hadn't inspired so many similar poems by other Beat Poet wannabes.
Climbing out of "Drunk Chicken (America)" is the band's third single "With Or Without You". Another contender for my favorite U2 song. Following this album, Bono's falsetto gets a nasal quality to it, so enjoy this pure falsetto while you can.
"In God's Country" is the first song on the album that really evokes the cover photo, what with having a desert in it. Not sure how I feel about the lyric sleep comes like a drug on an album that otherwise speaks to the horrors of drug addiction. Bono also comes close to putting some American country inflection in this song, but he always pulls out at the last second.
"Beautiful Ghost" evokes "Mothers Of The Disappeared" with its haunting instrumentation but has the Bono speaking style that he will use years later, in our universe, on the soundtrack to The Million Dollar Hotel. It's a solid haunting lullaby.
Breaking through the ambience of the previous track, "Luminous Times" is another hold on to love track. Lyrically, this song is not my favorite, partially because I don't enjoy the use of the word soul, partially because the song never actually goes anywhere, but that seems to be part of its point. Love is god's blah blah blah, and you should hold on to it. Fiiiiiiiiiiiiine.
The second single from the album, "Where The Streets Have No Name" becomes their tour opener for the end of the eighties, and also for much of the twenty-first century. It's constant sense of building, and never arriving so much as ending with The Edge twanging the same sequence from the beginning of the song is really indicative of the whole experience of this album.
The squeak of Edge on his guitar is one of the album's most endearing sounds. It shouldn't work with the heaviness of "Red Hill Mining Town" but it does. Perfectly.
"One Tree Hill" has one of the most unnecessary fake endings and rebuilds of any U2 song. I an't explain why I enjoy it. I really enjoy it as the album's penultimate track, too. Here you go, a poppy Americaneque rock ballad to end the album. Just kidding, there's going to be another atmospheric song before we go!
How is U2 going to have a song called "Exit" be on the album, fade it into silence, and then not have it be the final track? I've fixed that for them.
I've been involved in the poetry slam scene for over twenty years now. I've seen it transform from monologues to stand up comedy to political diatribes to persona work to multi-voiced theater to identity-focused political pleas. It's been mostly interesting (but sometimes frustrating) to watch the ebb and flow of what's popular amongst a community. I find it much more interesting to watch a specific artist evolve in their writing. A high school student comes to poetry writing about their day to day life goes to college and begins to frame their daily experiences from a particular political or identity stance. Then they fall in love, and tell political stories through the lens of being in a relationship. Then they break up, and don't want to write about their terrible ex, and begin creating surreal monologues about their job. Then they worry they are stifling their creativity by not writing about their ex, and begin to write humor pieces where they dissect their own relationship from a variety of points of view. Then they read a powerful story in the news, and they write about it from the perspective of someone involved in the event.
I love seeing how a person grows into themselves through they're writing. And the same goes for bands. Often, a band or artist is only popular for less than a decade, so you watch as their art improves, but you may never see it fully switch gears. Often, by the time they hit the national stage, they have a voice, and once they get famous, their managers, record company, producers, and marketers get terrified when they try and reinvent themselves in any way. So their music tends to be Their Music. It evolves almost macroscopically. But then there's The Beatles whose entire process, voice, and music catalogue underwent an enormous change in just ten years.
U2 has been around for forty years now. Their evolution was much slower and less dramatic than The Beatles, but created a much more varied amount of styles and topics than The Rolling Stones, who've been around for sixty years at this point. I'm not saying which bands are better, but I'm fascinated at their evolutions.
The Unforgettable Fire is the first of two major shifts in U2's career. Coming out of the politically charged War with its focus on thick bass drumlines and repetitive political chants, U2 managed to write a sonically softer album. Not necessarily ballady, but Edge's jangly guitar riffs lose their aggression, Mullen Jr's drums get pushed further back in the mix, Clayton's basslines get more experimental, and Bono's lyrics are still political but now contemplative, instead of preachy.
Instead of letting the drumbeats dictate the change in songs, the tracks on The Unforgettable Fire climb out of each other, like one long shifting symphony.
The Unforgettable Fire has long been my favorite U2 album. It's more focused than anything that comes before it. It should really only have two singles, "Pride (In The Name Of Love)" and "Bad". The rest of the songs are more album rock, a feel that they wouldn't go back to until All That You Can't Leave Behind. It's the album I most return to, and the one I've done the least amount of altering to when placing it in the alternative timeline. I haven't cut any songs, I didn't do any extensive editing, I just changed the track order, and added some similar work they did with other artists.
Much the way Alternate Universe U2's War started with a political mission statement, and the drums would be almost unrelenting for the rest of the album, The Unforgettable Fire starts with a track that most speaks to the album's aesthetic. "MLK" is a hymn and a lullaby. The hum of an organ is the only background music, creating a song vastly different from anything on the previous albums. The very simple verse is repeated twice, and then ends without ever hitting a bridge or chorus.
Climbing out of the hum comes Edge's clanky guitars as "Alex Descends Into Hell For A Bottle Of Milk" has no Bono vocals, instead a boys choir sings in Latin. In our universe, this nearly instrumental track was a B-Side from Achtung Baby that the band wrote for a stage production of "A Clockwork Orange", but I like it here, as the preview of a sound that's four albums away but definitely looming as their next major shift.
Once again, the songs overlap as a guitar riff builds out of the previous song's climax. "Wire" feels like something Bono might have written for War if he was more focused on evoking emotion than political persuasion. Clayton's winding bassline, looping around Edge's scattershot guitar riffs is super striking, particularly coming out of the two preceding, less aggressive tracks.
When discussing Boytober, I mentioned that I had a hard time reconciling all the reviews that referred to Bono as a poet for his lyrics. But on this album, his songs do feel more like poetry than lyrics. A lot of it is there are very few choruses on the album. According to the band's self-made legend, Bono wasn't able to finish the lyrics on this album, so much of the writing was ad-libbing and sketches. And it works. I have favorite songs on this album that I don't even know the lyrics to. Or that I know the lyrics to, but have never really sat down and parsed out what they're trying to say. The lyrics seem abstract. On this album more than any other U2 song, Bono's vocals are more instrument in the mix than focus. That's especially true on this eponymous track "Unforgettable Fire". I love it. What's it about? A feeling of wanting to go home. From where? Everywhere.
"Promenade" doesn't get much more specific. This song is almost a list poem, in the way that Alanis Morissette songs are list poems. But there's less creepy men in the background of these songs.
It's cliche, but tracks tend to lap out of each other on waves in this album. This is especially true of the way "Bass Trap", the first completely instrumental track falls out of "Promenade". It also feels very liquid. It's the kind of relaxing music you could imagine hearing at a bar near a beach, and yet I associate it, and most of the songs on this album as Winter Songs. It's like floating comfortably in an ocean when you can see snow on the shore.
In our universe "In A Lifetime" is a Clannad song. "Who's Clannad?" ask those of you not around in the eighties and early nineties. Clannad is an Irish folk/new age band that produced Enya. "In A Lifetime" is a traditional Irish song that features Máire Brennan and Bono trading off on vocals. It's very mid-80s Irish fol rock that fits perfectly within the context of this album. Even though it has a saxophone in it.
"4th Of July (The Three Sunrises)" is actually two U2 tracks from our universe edited together. Like "Bass Trap", "4th Of July" is entirely instrumental. But I like it as the dark, stormy beginning (again it feels simultaneously wintery and liquid) with the optimistic riffs and vocals of "The Three Sunrises" bursting out of it.
Like "The Three Sunrises", in our universe "Boomerang II" is a B-side. While most of the songs on this album are verses without choruses, "Boomerang II" is a chant. Soul wind blows is repeated over and over again, with occasional other lyrics inserted between them. I. Um. So. I hate this lyric. I have, for thirty years, thought the repeated lyric was So it goes, which I like much better. I'm going to pretend I never found out that I was wrong. So in my universe So it goes is the correct lyric. We'll give song cowriting credit to Kurt Vonnegut.
We are over 3/4s of the way through the album, and we've just arrived at the first single. "Pride (In The Name Of Love) really belongs on War. It's anthemic. It has a proper verse/chorus structure. It's Very Political (though inaccurate, King did not die on the early morning of April 4th, but the early evening). It starts off comparing Martin Luther King (also the subject of "MLK") and Malcolm X. But it abandons that and eventually becomes, ummm, a sort of aimless anthem. Again, very War. It's being the first single from this album is a good false flag to get people to buy this album, expecting more of the same, only to find a completely different album.
"A Sort Of Homecoming" is another of my favorite U2 tracks. In my head, there's a video for this song that involves walking through a wintry landscape. I guess that video exists exclusively in the alternate universe, since the video from this universe is just live footage from a concert. I'm wondering if maybe I started listening to this album during the winter of my sophomore year of high school, when I had to trek across a two football fields worth of a snow covered campus, and its ingrained into my associations with this album. (I mean there is a repeated lyric in the song about your heart beats so slow/ through the rain and fallen snow, so maybe it's just that.)
Sticking with the heart, but abandoning the snow in order to get back to the ocean, we arrive at "Indian Summer Sky". A song to celebrate the Solstice! On this the longest day.
Closing out the album is the second single"Bad", an almost omnipresent part of their live show, it's often medlied into other songs, including "Satellite Of Love", "Sympathy For The Devil", "Walk On The Wildside", "Ruby Tuesday", "Come On Down", "Biko", "Candle In The Wind", "All I Want Is You", "The Drugs Don't Work", "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses", "40", "Moment Of Surrender", "Mother And Son Reunion", and "Fool To Cry" among others. While U2 already had a pretty decent following, their live performance of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Bad" as a part of Live Aid made them international stars. The closing lines I'm wide awake/I'm not sleeping make a great contrast to the opening lines of the album Sleep/Sleep tonight/And may your dreams be realized.
I managed a music store in the mid to late 90s. Part of our routine was to keep our Employee Recommendation Area changing every week or so. The Unforgettable Fire, along with Radiohead's The Bends, Soundgarden's Superunknown, Soul Coughing's Ruby Vroom, Salt-N-Pepa's Very Necessary, and Tom Petty's Wildflowers was always in rotation.
Because this is the album I've made the least amount of changes to, I've kept the cover of the original album, but moved the title, and added the track listing for this version.
Hope you enjoy.