Ruminations on TV Shows, Comics, And Music
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.