Sunday, May 13, 2007

Discography: U2 - Intro

I heard U2 for the first time almost 25 years ago. A friend of mine was a huge fan. As they became one of the biggest rock bands in the world, I wondered, "How did he know?" Now I wonder, "How did I not know?" In every respect, they are as important to the 80s (and everything after) as the Beatles were to the 60s (and everything after), both musically and socially. To boot, they became a political force as well. Perhaps U2 was more of the Beatles/Dylan of the 80s and maybe the David Bowie of the 90s. That's probably too many analogies though.

I used to think that U2's career could be divided in two, Boy through Rattle and Hum and Achtung Baby to the present. Going back and listening to everything together though, I really think there are four periods, the Irish period, the American period, the European period and the Rock period.

The Irish period consists of the first three studio LPs, Boy, October and War as well as the live Under a Blood Red Sky. Their sound was pretty well-defined, but hadn't become the huge arena-oriented sound into which it would soon develop. The Edge was already revolutionizing what could be done with a guitar and a delay pedal. Bono's vocals were already soulful and completely engaging. Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. were already a simple but tight rhythm section. The pieces were in place, but U2 didn't sound like a huge band yet. They were still Ireland's and not the world's.

The American period saw U2's focus shift from Ireland to the American superpower, both the largest market and the biggest power in the West. The Unforgettable Fire, Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum all share the same sense of being American records, both musically and philosophically. Interestingly, the band never seemed like an Irish band trying to act American. They thoroughly absorbed America into who they were as a band without losing the Irish spirit that made them unique.

They didn't ease into the European period as they did into the American period. The three years between albums saw an abupt shift in their sound from the very organic American roots influences to the colder, more precise world of European club music. Nonetheless, they managed to keep the sense of warmth that always made them so engaging for Achtung Baby. That warmth was comparitively absent from Zooropa and Pop.

Despite the commercial and critical success of the European period, I think U2 felt the need to re-engage themselves which led to the albums of the Rock period. While the tours for the previous three albums were supposedly amazing, they also had the quality of being more of a spectacle than a rock concert. When they released All That You Can't Leave Behind, my first reaction was that they had written an album they could play live without all the frills of the recent tours. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb continues in the same vein.

In order to keep things manageable, I'm going to split this into multiple posts, one for each of the periods above.

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Blogger Allyson said...

u2 is one of the most overrated bands that ever landed a major label deal. I've got no problem with musicians using their fame for good, but sometimes it's better if they just shut up and perform.
Plus, their tunes seem hackneyed.


9:12 AM  
Blogger bob_vinyl said...

Allyson - Thanks for stopping by. I agree with you that it doesn't do anyone any good for a band to have a good cause without good music to back it up. However, U2 has managed to balance the cause and the music very well. Their call for social and political justice is inseperable from their music (much in the way that misogyny and partying is inseperable from hair metal), but they have also managed to be consistently creative, redefining both themselves and rock music as a whole as they go. Like the Beatles before them, they have been at the root of new musical direction rather than its tiniest, most insignificant branches. I'm not sure how that translates into them being hackneyed as you suggest. I'm certainly not saying that they have to resonate with you, but I think if you seperate yourself from your opinion, you'll see just how important a band they really are.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

I think U2 is most definitely one of the best bands of the past few decades. They've managed to reinvent themselves and constantly keep a fresh face on their music. Unlike many people I think there is a place for politics and music and I encourage artists to voice themselves outside of the music arena. I really love their past two albums and think they are amongst their best efforts. However, my two most favorite albums are probably the obvious "Joshua Tree" and "War."

11:08 AM  
Blogger Metal Mark said...

I think I have some U2 albums, but have listened to them.

7:48 PM  
Blogger bob_vinyl said...

Jeff - I agree that there is a place for politics in music, I just ask that it's informed politics and not just received opinion. U2 is definitely informed and that is part of what makes their message so powerful (as opposed to someone like Sheryl Crow who likes to pretend to be an activist). I too have enjoyed the last two albums. I think you will agree with one of my reviews of your favorites and surprised by the other.

Mark - I don't think U2 would be particularly up your alley, but you can probably appreciate what they've done if you give those albums a listen.

4:40 PM  

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