Critical Writings -> Academic Journals -> Articles & Reviews

Articles and Reviews: MUSIC

Pop by U2

Chary of boring my readers, and of over-obviously trying to cultivate and imply an insider’s long-standing credibility because of having been there from the very beginning, I am not going to regale you with tales of seeing these boys on Saturday afternoons in the Dandelion Market and McGonagle’s (as they were then) for 50p during my adolescence. Suffice to say that my relationship with U2 goes back a long way. Of course, such is their pre-eminent position in Irish life today that few of us have remained untouched by them, and everyone now has an opinion about them.

 

Back

 
 

But, if only for highly subjective reasons - nostalgia more than anything else - at a push I’d still nominate Boy, their debut album, as my personal favourite out of all their work. With Bono’s soaring boyish vocals and The Edge’s Tom Verlaine influenced guitar style lending such range and depth to the sound, it captured perfectly the giddy rush of their early live shows. With their next two releases, October and War, they became more involved in their fundamentalist Christian beliefs and more preachy, and I gradually lost interest in what they were doing. All that running around with white flags may have been fine for Americans, but it was a bit difficult for any Irish person with an IQ that ran into triple figures to take seriously. I’m reminded of the currently popular car bumper sticker which declares, ‘I’m For Peace’. Aren’t most of us? But when they began to work with Brian Eno as producer they began to get interesting again. The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree and Rattle And Hum may still have suffered from an excess of earnestness, but they did consolidate the band’s position internationally, not least because they contained more traditionally constructed songs which could be strummed on an acoustic guitar, in contrast to the idiosyncratic and impressionistic method of composition they’d used previously. With Achtung Baby and Zooropa, displaying their discovery of post-modern irony, I came back to the fold. It seems you can’t hang out with a smart guy like Eno for very long without some of that cerebral cool and detachment and distance rubbing off. As Bono said of his MacPhisto incarnation in a recent interview: “I was surprised how well insincerity suited
me.”
All this preamble by way of setting the scene for a consideration of U2’s latest offering, Pop. It’s a marvellous album, which sees them going forward and progressing, commendable for a mega-band who could so easily and profitably stick to tried and trusted formulae. Howie B has taken over from Eno as agent provocateur of the studio, and it’s a very rhythm orientated sound, as can be heard on the single ‘Discotheque’ and ‘Mofo’, with Larry Mullen playing a blinder on drums. There are quieter moments though too, like ‘If God Will Send His Angels’ and ‘If You Wear That Velvet Dress’. The latter, and ‘The Playboy Mansion’ have a druggy, almost hippyish feel to them. But then psychedelia is back in vogue.
Lyrically, Bono continues to explore the expression of spirituality in a fallen world, the validity of religious belief in a secular society, and many of the tracks have the moral ambiguity of a song like ‘Acrobat’ from Achtung Baby. ‘Mofo’ quotes Salman Rushdie’s phrase about ‘filling the God shaped hole’. ‘If God Will Send His Angels’ contains lines like ‘God has got his phone off the hook babe, would he even pick up if he could?’ and ‘Jesus never let me down, you know Jesus used to show me the score/Then they put Jesus in show business, now it’s hard to get in the door’. And ‘Wake Up Dead Man’, one of their most powerful songs ever of faith and doubt, which seems to be addressed to a deceased divinity, pleads ‘Jesus, I’m waiting here boss/I know you’re looking out for us/But maybe your hands aren’t free’. Ultimately, with U2, unlike Nietzsche, God isn’t dead, he’s just on an extended
sabbatical.
“We’re still the bleeding hearts club,” Bono volunteered at the press launch of Pop, “we’ve just learned how to hide it better.” It may seem contradictory to adopt a strategic pose and then tell everyone you’ve adopted a strategic pose, but while they’ve discovered the vital unimportance of being earnest, many of their concerns today remain the same as when they started. They’re older now, like the rest of us, and have learned that the ability to dissemble is an important survival skill, but they’re still more like themselves than they ever were. Most crucially, unlike other ‘80s bands of arguably comparable talent, say The Smiths or Simple Minds, they have endured and are still together. Let’s face it, regardless of marketing ploys and promotion drives, they wouldn’t be where they are today if they didn’t have something people wanted. Long may they continue to pop up.

First published in 46A

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home
Biography
Fiction
Critical Writings
Travel Writings
Awards