Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Dreams Beneath a Desert Sky

Muslims pilgrimage to Mecca. Jews to Jerusalem. Catholics to Rome. Entertainers go to Vegas. So said Bono at Friday night’s U2 concert in Sin City.

This sums up U2’s musical journey better than I ever could. I remember in the mid-90s reading a biography of the band called Until the End of the World. It proposed that Achtung Baby, their 1991 release, was a concept album – charting a spiritual progression through the dark night of the soul, from sensory overload to spiritual salvation. Most of U2’s recent albums since have ended on a quasi-religious note (three of the four band members are avowed Christians), but it seems to me that the entire decade of the 1990s was their dark night of the soul… and that darkness is still visible in their 360 Tour light show.

The band’s history breaks down into roughly four phases:

1976 – 1983: Larry Mullen pulled the band members together while they were all still in prep school in Dublin. They took on manager Paul McGuinness in 1978 and released their first EP in 1979. A year later, Steve Lilywhite produced their first full-length album, a hard-driving guitar rock album called Boy, which gained the band some recognition in the U.S. Their second album, October, found the group almost completely overwhelmed by politics and religion. War, their breakthrough album, successfully combined the band’s early sound with more sophisticated songwriting that expressed their political and religious agenda. They never looked back.

1984 – 1989: Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois took over as producers on the next two albums, The Unforgettable Fire (1984) and The Joshua Tree (1986), and helped to enhance the band’s distinctive sound – making it looser, more textured, ethereal and poetic. Today, The Unforgettable Fire is generally regarded as a rehearsal for The Joshua Tree, their acknowledged masterpiece. Both albums explored the roots of American music and paid homage to the likes of Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, gospel and the blues. The subsequent stadium tours of the U.S. and Europe established them as “rock’s hottest ticket.” A documentary, RATTLE AND HUM (1988), charted their success… and prompted the first major critical backlash against them. Responding to those who said that they were taking themselves too seriously, U2 disappeared at the end of the decade, to “dream it all up again.”

1990 – 1999: Eno and Lanois pushed a darker, more industrial sound on the next album, Achtung Baby (1991), and the band members reinvented themselves onstage in a multi-media extravaganza called ZooTV. The goal was sensory overload – the band responded to accusations of pretentiousness with evasive sarcasm and blatant over-indulgence. In the eye of the hurricane, they produced a more experimental short album, Zooropa (1993). Their next effort, Pop (1997), was another calculated attempt at reinvention, with producers Howie B. and Flood pushing the band’s sound closer to techno and dance music. The subsequent PopMart Tour was U2’s biggest production yet – so top heavy that practically no one (including the band members) could distinguish any longer between self-indulgence and irony.

2000 – Present: Eno and Lanois returned to the fold to produce a very conscious “return to form” with the 2000 album All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The subsequent Elevation Tour was equally pared-down and earnest, and fans and critics cited it as a renaissance for the band. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004) and the following Vertigo Tour were designed to combine the “classic” U2 sound with the more experimental work of the 1990s. The result was a little bit schizophrenic, and the band underwent a long gestation period for their follow-up, No Line on the Horizon (2009). Eager for a more unified sound, they relied again on Eno and Lanois – who, at this point, might as well be acknowledged as additional band members. The sound was consistent, if overly familiar.

“Familiar” doesn’t seem to be a problem for the legions of U2 fans around the world, and new albums continue to accumulate new fans. At the beginning of the current 360 Tour, one reviewer commented on how amazing it is that most concert-goers appear to know the worlds to ALL of the songs – old and new. The set list emphasizes the Eno/Lanois efforts. Aside from “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” all of the songs are drawn from The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, and Achtung Baby (the 1984 – 1991 phase) or All That You Can’t Leave Behind, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and No Line on the Horizon (the 2000s). There is no acknowledgment of Pop… but mid-1990s U2 is unquestionably present in the spirit of the production and the performances.

The peak of my U2 fandom came in the spring of 1997, when I bought tickets for an early stop on the PopMart Tour. In a few short months, I collected every U2 song I could get my hands on – including the live albums, the Passengers experiment, and all of the available B-sides (even one that I could only get on vinyl). My favorite was a short track from “The Fly” single called “Alex Descends into Hell for a Bottle of Milk Korova 1” – it was dark and gritty and restless in a way that U2 songs rarely are. The “classic” U2 sound – heard most obviously on The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree and All That You Can’t Leave Behind – is about transcendence. This “other” U2 sound – which underlies Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop – is more primal. You can hear it particularly on “The Fly,” “Dirty Day,” and “Last Night on Earth.”

On the band’s best songs, these two sounds and the ideas they convey go hand-in-hand. U2 sings about divisive earthly politics as well as transcendent “oneness.” At the concert in Vegas, it was hard not to feel like we were all part of one big, crazy family. The girl sitting next to us exclaimed loudly that we were “neighbors forever because we were U2 neighbors.” Of course, she was falling-down drunk. Bono was much more convincing, leading a rousing karaoke crowd through “Magnificent”: “Only love can leave such a mark.” If we don’t remember the people sitting next to us in ten or twenty years, we will certainly remember the night and the sound of the music under the desert sky. It’s no exaggeration to say that concerts like this can be a borderline religious experience – the production values (on par with PopMart) as well as the music are awe-inspiring.

I suspect that most of the audience members had very strong emotional reactions when the band played the three hit singles from The Joshua Tree: “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You.” I remembered having listened to those songs as I drove through breathtaking Joshua Tree National Park for the first time. I was equally moved by the performances of “The Unforgettable Fire” and “MLK,” which I had never heard live. “Ultra Violet,” one of the later songs from Achtung Baby, was another great surprise. For me, however, the highlights were a supercharged rendition of “Until the End of the World” and a show-stopping, primal remix of “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.” That latter was one of the nine songs that U2 performed from their current album.

While I hadn’t spent very much time with the album before going to Vegas, I must admit that most of the new songs sounded just as familiar and just as exciting as the ones I’ve been listening to for the past twenty years. The words, too, are right on the money. This transcendence is hard-won:

We are people born of sound.
The songs are in our eyes.
Gonna wear them like a crown.
Walk out into a sunburst street.
Sing your heart out, sing my heart out.
I found grace inside a sound.
I found grace – it's all that I found.
And I can breathe,
Breathe now…

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