Retrospective: The 14 Albums of U2 (1980-2017)

The new U2 album is awful. I’m not sure what happened to these guys who used to be capable of riffs and melodies that could swallow the world. But there’s not a single track on Songs Of Experience that does anything for me. Which pretty much repeats the failures of Songs of Innocence and No Line on the Horizon.

All the more reason for this retrospective, to remind ourselves how great the band used to be. Here’s my ranking of the 14 albums.

1. Achtung Baby. 1991. 5 stars. When U2 reinvented themselves they exceeded their ambitions. Bono’s stated intent was to “burn down the Joshua Tree” and come up with a sound just as original, and they produced a masterpiece with not a single bad track. The sitz im leben of the album is well known: the band members were in Berlin after the Wall’s fall, inspired by a new decade and new ideas, but gnashing their teeth in frustration until they finally broke through with a style that incorporated unnerving sonics and the rising alternative influences of the ’90s. The music sounds almost like hypnotic pulses from a shadow realm like The Upside Down; I never tire of listening to it from start to finish.

Best Tracks: Fly, Until the End of the World, Ultraviolet, One, Mysterious Ways.

2. The Unforgettable Fire. 1984. 5 stars. If not for the fact that Achtung Baby is so compulsive, and that I can pretty much listen to it regardless of my mood, I’d call this the best U2 album. Bands are often at their best right before hitting a formula that earns them mass fandom, and that’s the point U2 was at in the mid-’80s. The Unforgettable Fire is stronger than The Joshua Tree for its fever dream quality, but also for carrying punches and mercies in equal balance. It’s another masterpiece album, and it has the mystique of being recorded in a castle (Slane) under the guidance of Brian Eno, who allowed U2 to spread their wings into ambient territory with more synths and strings.

Best Tracks: A Sort of Homecoming, Bad, Pride, Elvis Presley and America, The Unforgettable Fire.

3. All That You Can’t Leave Behind. 2000. 5 stars. By the end of the ’90s I’d given up on U2, but then came this phenomenal return to form blending the best of the band’s past: the melodies and hooks from the ’80s albums, with the more electronic textures from the ’90s. The result is a filler-free album on which each song sounds like its own opus. On top of that, Bono’s voice is back. Listening to the album, especially the lead track “Beautiful Day”, is like waking up from a slumber, as if the band members are announcing what we always wished — that Zooropa and Pop were just bad dreams. If this album isn’t a masterpiece, it’s damn close.

Best Tracks: Beautiful Day, Stuck in a Moment, Kite, When I Look at the World, Elevation.

4. War. 1983. 4 ½ stars. War remains one of the best political rock albums of all time. The raging passion of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” has been channeled on stage to legendary effect, and “New Year’s Day” is the band’s most timeless hit. But “Drowning Man” is my favorite, with its cribbed lines from Isaiah 40, amazing guitar strokes, and Middle Eastern-sounding violins. The Edge considers the song to be one of the most successful pieces U2 has ever recorded, and I completely agree. War confronts a world bleeding under conflict and is a piece of musical greatness, even if a few songs sound underdeveloped.

Best Tracks: Drowning Man, New Year’s Day, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Like a Song.

5. The Joshua Tree. 1987. 4 ½ stars. The most polished U2 album is considered #1 by many, but in some cases I think it’s too polished for its own good. Tracks like “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “With or Without You” haven’t aged well on me, sounding a bit flat. The live versions continue to be awesome, but the studio versions sound constrained by too much discipline. Then there is the gospel-sounding “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, which I loved in the ’80s but which also hasn’t aged well, and in this case the live versions are even worse; it doesn’t help that Christians have overused it for evangelical purposes. The Joshua Tree is a brilliantly inspired album, no question, but I rarely listen to the whole thing anymore.

Best Tracks: Red Hill Mining Town, Running to Stand Still, Exit. (Live versions only: Where the Streets Have No Name, With or Without You.)

6. October. 1981. 4 stars. The sophomore album is the band’s most underrated, and in my opinion slightly better than Boy. It has a weird intimacy and spirituality that doesn’t overpush things. “Tomorrow” was inspired by the funeral of Bono’s mother; “I Fall Down” explores the pain of relationships; the serene title track puts one in mind of October (the best month of the year); and “Gloria” supplies a Latin liturgical chorus — a strong lead to an album of oblique spirituality. Nowadays I listen to October more than I listen to The Joshua Tree. Even if there isn’t any one really strong song on it, the collective tracks add up to a texture that is very pleasing to my ear.

Best Tracks: All of them back to back.

7. Boy. 1980. 4 stars. I use the “obscene” U.K. album cover, not the absurd-looking American one which censored the boy for fears of pedophilia. Back in the ’80s this was my first conscious exposure to issues of censorship and free expression, and I remember being puzzled as much as Bono that this image could somehow be seen as dirty. (Those who think it is are probably pedophiles themselves.) The band members wanted the cover to look like a child’s face coming out of white, like a photograph before fully developed, as a metaphor for themselves as fledgling band members. They felt like boys who dreamed big and wanted to conquer the world with music. They’d have to wait a few more years and two more albums, but in hindsight Boy is an exciting signpost towards greatness.

Best Tracks: Out of Control, I Will Follow.

8. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. 2004. 3 ½ stars. Bono has described this album as having no weak songs, “but as an album, the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts, and it fucking annoys me”. That’s not a bad summation. The tracks are pretty good, but they have the oddness of not sounding much like U2 even when being derivative of their own work. Much has been lost by this stage — the arresting melodies of the ’80s albums and the dense soundscapes of Achtung Baby. The band members scaled back to the extent that the music lacks mystery. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is basically U2 playing simple and direct. That’s not necessarily bad, but it does show a certain lack of inspiration. It was their last decent album.

Best Track: City of Blinding Lights.

9. Rattle and Hum. 1988. 3 stars. Blues music wasn’t the best fit for U2. There are some good songs here like “Desire” and “Angel of Harlem”, but there not great, and it doesn’t help that the new songs are obscured by the inclusion of live performances of older songs which betrays a weak vision. The best track is actually “Heartland”, which was recorded back in the Unforgettable Fire days. Still, we should be thankful for Rattle and Hum. Its mediocrity signaled to the band members that they desperately needed a new sound. The result would be the miracle of Achtung Baby.

Best Track: Heartland.

10. Zooropa. 1993. 2 stars. Achtung Baby promised a new U2 greatness in the ’90s, but Zooropa failed miserably on that promise. Songs like “Lemon”, “Numb”, and “Babyface” are still enough to give me piles. Tracks like “Stay”, while grossly overpraised, do keep Zooropa out of the 1-star category, but that’s damning (rather heavily) with faint approval. The fact is that this album is a compilation of music hastily thrown together during the Zoo TV tour, and it shows. It’s an experiment with sonics that would come to full fruition in Pop, with results just as dire.

11. Pop. 1997. 2 stars. Apologists for Pop put me in mind of those who defend such musical manures as Rush’s Roll the Bones. This is what happens when fame goes to your head. Great bands like U2 and Rush suddenly become poseurs for the teen crowd. By this point U2 had pushed the electronic texture to its limit so that it’s really all there was left. The guitar distortions are cringeworthy, the melodies are non-melodies, and aside from a couple of mildly interesting tracks, it’s a vain album. Those who defend Pop (and Zooropa) call the rest of U2 fandom unenlightened instead of owning up to the truth: that their taste is where they sit.

12-14. No Line on the Horizon, Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience. 2009, 2014, 2017. 1 star each. No Line on the Horizon was supposed to be the new Achtung Baby but was a go-nowhere travesty. Songs of Experience was forecast as a new Zooropa, which is more accurate, though certainly not to the album’s credit. It’s chock full of embarrassing sentimentality. As for Songs of Innocence, it was released as a free download on iTunes, and as the adage goes, you get what you pay for — which is no doubt why the marketing ploy wasn’t repeated this time for Experience. I’m not sure why U2 persists when they have nothing real to offer anymore. Despite the glorious reboot of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, the band members have spent the last dozen years sinking into their conceited backsides. Time to retire.

The Evolution of the Hive Mind in D&D’s Mind Flayer & Aboleth

In my last post I pointed out that the Shadow Monster of Stranger Things is much closer to an aboleth than a mind flayer. Since then I found an interview with the Duffer Brothers, who claim they designed the Shadow Monster without thinking of any creature from D&D, whether aboleth or mind flayer. This is how they tell it:

Matt: We came up with the creature and it was always called the Shadow Monster. Then we were like, “We need to come up with a proper name for this thing.” When we were going through the Dungeons & Dragons manual, I found this creature I’d forgotten about called the Mind Flayer. It was so close to the idea of our Shadow Monster. It was eerily the same. We were like, “Well, we’ve got our name.” It’s a weird-ass name, but the Mind Flayer it is.

Ross: It has nothing to do with the shape, or the way it looks, or the particles. But the fact that it moves from dimension to dimension, infecting the minds of others in order to control them and spread itself. I can’t remember everything else, but it’s everything that we were talking about with our Shadow Monster. I don’t think anyone will believe us. They’re going to think we just, day one, looked through the Dungeons & Dragons manual. I don’t know why we didn’t. But we did not.

Actually, yes, I thought the Duffer Brothers were looking through the D&D manuals, but taking clear inspiration from the aboleth, not the mind flayer. The Shadow Monster is so close to the aboleth you have to be trying to not see it. I assumed the Duffers called their creature a mind flayer because it sounds bad ass, even to an audience unfamiliar with Dungeons & Dragons. “Aboleth” sounds unimpressive by comparison, like something you’d find listed in an obscure academic journal. I have a hard time believing the D&D-savvy Duffer Brothers designed a creature that fits the aboleth almost to a tee but were unaware of it.

For the fun of it, I researched the evolution of both the aboleth and mind flayer in D&D. I’ve bolded all the relevant parts that bear any resemblance to the Shadow Creature of Stranger Things. I’m not sure what Ross means about the mind flayer’s ability to “spread itself” in the 1st edition Monster Manual. The hive mind aspect of the mind flayer was not introduced into the game until the late ’90s (see below), and certainly not in the manual Dustin reads from.

The Mind Flayer

1975. The Strategic Review #1 introduces the mind flayer: a humanoid with an octopus-like head that feeds on brains. The creature’s physical attack is by striking a victim with its four purplish black tentacles. If a tentacle hits it will reach the victim’s brain in 1-4 rounds and draw it forth, immediately killing the creature. The mind flayer then devours the brain. It can also unleash a mind blast in a 60-foot cone range, which causes death, coma, sleep, stun, confusion, or rage, depending on the victim’s intelligence.

1977. The Monster Manual canonizes the mind flayer, expanding and changing details provided above in The Strategic Review. Notably, the mind blast is now a simplified psionic blast which stuns, regardless of the victim’s intelligence. The mind flayer has the psionic abilities of domination, levitation, ESP, body equilibrium, and astral projection/probability travel. The domination ability allows it to control a victim (if a saving throw fails) as long as the mind flayer keeps concentrating on the victim. It’s also now specified that mind flayers detest sunlight and prefer habitats of subterranean places.

The Aboleth

1981. Dwellers of the Forbidden City introduces the aboleth: a gigantic tentacled monster that has strong psionic powers, and uses its mind control ability to make slaves. It’s an ancient life form, extremely intelligent, and views all other races as inferior upstarts who stole what is rightfully theirs. It attacks with its four tentacles which cause l-6 points of damage each, in addition to changing the victim’s skin into a clear slimy membrane in 2-5 rounds if a saving throw fails. Once the change is complete, the membrane must be kept damp with cool water or the victim will take 1-12 points of damage each turn due to intense pain caused by the drying membrane. (This is somewhat reminiscent of the way Will Byers needed to be kept cold.) It’s an amphibious creature, and in water it will secrete a cloud of mucus all around its body. Any creature drawn into the mucus must save vs. poison or it will inhale the stuff and become unable to breathe air, suffocating in 2-12 rounds if trying to breathe air. However, that same creature will gain the ability to breathe water, as a potion of water breathing, for 1-3 hours. The aboleth uses this mucus to give its slaves the power to breathe water. (The mucus reminds of the gooey substance from the Upside Down. Does that goo allow one to breathe the toxic environment of the Upside Down?)

1983. The Monster Manual II canonizes the aboleth, detailing them exactly as described above in Dwellers of the Forbidden City.

The Mind Flayer

1983. “The Ecology of the Mind Flayer”, in Dragon Magazine #78, offers the first suggestion that mind flayers are from another world. It emphasizes their brain-eating and domination powers in much stronger terms:

“To eat the brain of another race is the ultimate symbol of dominion over that race. They consume that which is important to them. Their tentacles have bony ridges that cut flesh and bone with ease, exposing the inside of the skull. Many collect the skulls of their victims and adorn their bodies with the trophies. They have a psionic power that especially helps them achieve their evil ends — a power of domination that they use with pleasure on their victims and those who would attack them. This domination power allows the mind flayer to control every movement of a single victim, to an unlimited extreme. Once, on a raid to an illithid lair, I saw a githyanki captain run himself through with his own sword while under the control of one of them.” (p 67)

So now the mind flayer can dominate to “an unlimited extreme”, even if the results are fatal to the victim. As presented in The Monster Manual, the domination power was the standard psionic ability and not as powerful. However, the mind flayer must still concentrate on the victim at all times, unlike the aboleth.

The Aboleth

1988. “The Ecology of the Aboleth”, in Dragon Magazine #131, presents variants that are more powerful than the common aboleth: greater aboleth (who maintain slaves gathered by the common aboleth), noble aboleth (who conduct scientific research and experimentation), ruler aboleth (who command aboleth cities or areas, and have a mental link with all their subjects), and a grand aboleth (a godlike creature that dwarfs even the rulers, but existing only in rumors). The hive mind is introduced as an aboleth feature, in the rulers, who are described as follows:

“These huge, bloated monstrosities are the largest and most intelligent of all aboleth (aside from the grand aboleth). Its telepathic link with its subjects allows it to be constantly aware of everything going on in its realm. Rulers are, in most other respects, similar to common and greater aboleth. They possess enslavement abilities equal to those of greater aboleth and can generate veil spells at will. Rulers can generate slime in a 5-foot radius, and the mere sight of one causes fear in all beings of less than 5th level or five hit dice.” (p 38)

It’s now specified that aboleth reproduce by egg, which are covered in a thick slime. The eggs hatch mini-aboleth who take about ten years to mature into adult form. (The demogorgon of Stranger Things reproduces by tentacle implantation (as it did to Will’s throat), not egg, so the eggs seen in season 1 were probably eggs for shadow monsters (“aboleth”) rather than demogorgons.)

The Mind Flayer

1998. The Illithiad reveals the world the mind flayers come from, a realm called the Outside. They reproduce by egg, which hatch tadpoles until they grow and are implanted into the brain of another humanoid, after which it immediately subsumes the creature’s personality, replacing it with its own awakening intellect. The hive mind is introduced as a mind flayer feature, which is called the “Elder Brain”. An elder brain is the final stage of the mind flayer life cycle, composed of the brains of long-dead mind flayers. It lives in a brine-filled pool in the center of a mind flayer city, where it guides its community by filling mind flayers with dreams of perverse domination. It has the psionic abilities of other mind flayers, but physically it is weak (unlike the powerful ruler aboleth and Shadow Monster from Stranger Things), which is why mind flayers protect their elder by securing it in well-protected caves. The elder can communicate telepathically not only with its subjects, but with any creature within 350 foot distance.  The ultimate goal of a mind flayer is to sacrifice its brain as it nears the end of its lifespan, by merging with the elder brain, strengthening the elder’s powers and intellect. Most mind flayer are unaware, however, that their personalities and consciousness are lost when joining with the elder brain, leaving only their knowledge and ideas to survive. (A closely guarded secret kept by the elder brains.)

Conclusion

As I said before, it’s clear that the aboleth are the closer representation of the Shadow Monster, though obviously “mind flayer” sounds sexier and was the better marketing choice. The hive mind is an anachronism for both, though it was developed first for the aboleth (in the ’80s) and only much later for the mind flayer (in the ’90s).

The Shadow Monster of Stranger Things 2: Mind Flayer or Aboleth?

The Shadow Monster

The Big Bad of Stranger Things 2 is a huge tentacled shadow monster which is eventually given a name by Dustin in episode 8: The Mind Flayer. Dustin says that’s the best analogy from the D&D world to make sense of what is going on in Hawkins. Everything from the Upside Down — the demo-dogs, the creeping vines, the underground tunnels burrowing into Hawkins, and the gate itself — seems to be under the control of a hive mind, and mind flayers are ruled by a hive mind (called an “elder brain”). They use their psionic abilities to dominate victims, which is what’s happening to Will. But there is a far better D&D comparison to the shadow monster: the aboleth.

Aboleth

The aboleth are huge floating tentacled monsters (see left) that are also ruled by a hive mind. Like mind flayers they have strong psionic abilities and use their mind control to make slaves. They excrete a mucus-substance which they need to breathe — the gooey substance from the Upside Down calls this to mind. The aboleth are an ancient life form and extremely intelligent, and they view all other races as inferior upstarts who stole what is rightfully theirs. In addition to being part of a hive mind, they are born with a racial memory, each one inheriting the memories of its ancestors. (An aboleth also assimilates the memories of consumed victims.) Aboleths enjoy spending time lost in the grand memories of their ancestors, and (time permitting) enjoy reliving entire portions of their ancestors’ lives. They are hermaphrodites and reproduce by egg. In season 1 of Stranger Things the Demogorgon reproduced by tentacle implantation (down Will’s throat), not egg, so the eggs we saw in season 1 were probably eggs for shadow monsters (aboleth) rather than more demogorgons.

Mind Flayer

An aboleth fits the description of the shadow monster almost to a tee, and it’s hard to see why Dustin associated it with a mind flayer instead. Mind Flayers have similar traits, as I mentioned, but their differences stand out. Significant is their positive view of magic. Mind flayers can be powerful mages. The aboleth despise all forms of magic and rejected it long ago in favor of science, which aligns with the sci-fic premise of Stranger Things. The mind flayers are humanoid in appearance (see right). Aside from their octopus-like heads, they bear little resemblance to the shadow monster of Stranger Things. The aboleth are gigantic (anywhere from 20-40 feet long) like the TV creature; mind flayers are the size of people. There’s no contest.

Dustin reads the information on the mind flayer in the D&D Monster Manual (1977), but there is actually no mention of a hive mind in this manual. The hive mind (elder brain) feature of the mind flayers would not be introduced into the game until 1998. So that’s a 14-year anachronism in the TV show. The aboleth first appeared in an adventure module called Dwellers of the Forbidden City (1981) and then were officially categorized in the Monster Manual II (1983), both of which predate the 1984 setting of Stranger Things 2. So they’re not an anachronism; Dustin would know about the aboleth, unless these kids never got around to buying the second Monster Manual, which I rather doubt. If they’re obsessed as I was with the game, which they clearly are, they would have obtained that manual in ’83 when it was hot off the press.

Late in the ’80s, Dragon Magazine #131 did a special feature on the aboleth, describing them as follows:

“In general, all aboleth are cruel, emotionless, and logical. All are extremely intelligent — some even more so than the most ancient of elven mages. They are believed to live for thousands of years, but exact information is difficult to gain. Over their many years of existence, the aboleth have developed a society which far exceeds that of humans in efficiency. In this society, each aboleth has a specific duty which it performs with the utmost skill. There are four major roles in the aboleth society. In increasing order of importance, these roles are: slave gathering, slave maintenance, scientific research and experimentation, and ruling. An aboleth feeds mainly on microscopic organisms which abound in its natural habitat, but it can also consume larger prey if necessary. Aboleth can survive in both air and water, but prefer water for obvious reasons. It is worthy to note that rumors exist of a grand aboleth, a creature so immense that it dwarfs even the rulers. If so, then perhaps it is better that surface and subterranean dwellers alike leave the aboleth to do as they please.”

Perhaps the shadow monster that possessed Will — and remains at large at the end of season 2 — is a grand aboleth. Not a creature I would mess with under any circumstances, unless I was ultra-high level and had an army at my back. Eleven crossed it badly by shutting the gate. I suspect she will reap devastating consequences in season 3.