Ruminations on TV Shows, Comics, And Music
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.