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 (with a couple of exceptions) 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. It’s a very dark album, about shitty relationships that can kill you.
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.
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.
4. The Joshua Tree. 1987. 4 ½ stars. The most polished U2 album is considered #1 by many, but in some cases 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.
5. 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.
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.
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. 2 stars each. No Line on the Horizon was supposed to be the new Achtung Baby but was go-nowhere. 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.