GROWING AN ALBUM
Author: John Kelly from the Irish Times
It's a simple enough notion in itself - a groundbreaking album is revisited in the company of the musicians and producers who made it, and along the way you get unique insight into the creative process. That's the basic theory behind one of music television's better ideas - the indispensable Classic Albums series which tonight features U2's The Joshua Tree . Along the way there are personal, business and political stories to be told, but ultimately it's a series which focuses on the bare bones of the music.
The Joshua Tree 's right to feature - whether you like it or not - is a fairly unchallengable one. It may be trite to say that it formed the soundtrack to the 1980s, but it certainly had a terrific impact in those dull and cynical days. It reached Number One in 22 countries, went platinum in two days and was the first ever Irish Number One album in the US. And when is the last time a garage band managed something like that?
Given the huge success of The Joshua Tree, it's hard to credit that U2 were, at the time, distinctly out of step. The mid-1980s were lean musical years in the US - synthesiser pop was the order of the day and things experimental were very unlikely to make mainstream headway. Added to that, this was a period of considerable self-regard - when to be "cool" was to remain hidden behind impenetrable faades where idealism was naff. The endearingly rash U2 therefore were very "uncool" indeed. In short, the mid-1980s was, on paper, a most unlikely period for The Joshua Tree to go to Number One and crack America open like a nut.
The reasons for the album's success are clear enough in retrospect. Firstly, it contained hit songs. Secondly, the music could be played live, and thirdly, whatever needed doing, Bono could carry it off with a lack of "cool" which was quite startling to behold. When it all came together it was quite unstoppable - - the bizarre, uplifting music itself as gauche and "wrong" as Bono. The only people who didn't like what they were hearing were the most cynical of cynics - and they didn't buy records anyway. The rest of the world happily cued at midnight.
Perhaps a less obvious factor in the album's success was the way U2 tapped into an extraordinary generosity in America and the American media - and their Irishness might have played no small part in that. The Joshua Tree wasn't obviously an Irish record, but as Bono puts it, it was Irish "in a much more mysterious way... the ache and the melancholy in it, is uniquely Irish."
But whatever that extra element might have been, the imagination of America had clearly been captured. Certainly The Clancys had done it before - but it was never like this. Suddenly U2 were on the cover of Time magazine and reports were filtering back of their absolute triumph. Ireland's greatest success story ever - no doubts about it. The begrudgers went into overdrive and the cool people lost it. Meanwhile, U2 were wearing stovepipe hats and literally singing from the rooftops of the US.
It is worth remembering, however, that while America eagerly embraced U2, the group had already embraced America with equal passion. Touches of blues and gospel were appearing and the videos projected cinematic ideas of the US back on itself - all of it making perfect musical and marketing sense. But don't forget that throughout the 1980s U2 had spent several months a year in the US, building up a huge reputation as a live band and they were already playing stadiums. The Joshua Tree , however, was the catalyst which confirmed their particular stellar status.
All that by way of background to tonight's Classic Albums on ITV. Produced by Chips Chipperfield and directed by Philip King, the film tells the story of the construction of this landmark album. It shows how a band (an actual band!) comes up with something both strange and hugely successful, and gives a fascinating insight into the roles of two particularly important and impressive individuals - producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. As with others in the Classic Albums series, the heart of the film is the scene where the producer sits at the sound desk and resurrects the individual tracks which create such familiar music. It's something of a rare delight not just for U2 fans, but for anybody interested in how recorded music is made.
Eno and Lanois are both extraordinary figures. They had produced the previous album, The Unforgettable Fire and appear to have different approaches to the job in hand. Eno is probably seen as the brainy and experimental one, while Lanois (known for his work with Dylan and Emmylou) is the rootsy one. But the film shows that it was never quite as simple as that. In fact they're both brainy, they're both experimental and they're both rootsy. The key, however, seems to be that the individual band members are equally blessed - and each benefits from the other. The obvious Larry Mullen/Daniel Lanois mutual appreciation society is one of the film's many pleasant revelations.
Equally endearing is a very uncomfortable Bono grimacing at the sound of his own voice when Lanois insists on letting us hear an isolated vocal track. In fact, the producer/artist relationship is explored in a subtle but effective manner throughout. The impression you're left with is that these people function with a genuine enthusiasm and apparently without ego. It's good to watch and Lanois, at his desk, seems to get as much delight from fading up bits and pieces of the songs as would any U2 fan. The over-riding feeling is one of pride in the music itself - a rare enough thing in pop.
Ultimately the film leaves you mindful of the amount of sheer hard work that goes into making this type of album. The sort of experimentation encouraged by Lanois and Eno (and by the band) is tricky enough at times and not without pain - some of which is dealt with in the film. The pleasure, however, is that all six of them are trying to achieve a similar goal - one which demands effort and a genuine passion for the music and the ideas which drive it. It might seem anachronistic, given the way things are with today's pop, to talk about music and passion and effort and ideas. But these are the very qualities which make U2 the best and by far the most interesting pop group in the world. A wild, rash and reckless conclusion maybe - but they bring out the best in this old cynic.
Reviewer: Rose Lorenz ( firstname.lastname@example.org )
Let's get something out of the way first. I'm not a music critic. Which is, I'm not paid by a magazine, or a newspaper or even a website to write my opinion on a selection of music. And I certainly don't publish my own book every year meant to tell people what to like or buy. But I do have a bias. Let's just get that out in front from the beginning.
My bias is that I like U2's music. I have all the albums. In some respects, this may make me unfit to review their latest studio album All That You Can't Leave Behind . Some may ask, isn't a fan someone who likes everything a band records? Wouldn't this make this review "unfairly" positive since a fan will try to make everything sound good? Not necessarily. U2 is blessed, or cursed, with a very critical fan base who is likely to react negatively when the band's music doesn't meet expectations... which are both immense and diverse.
In spite of what you may think, though, at the end of the day what more is a review rather than an opinion? Whether published in a national publication or a fan website or merely spoken to a friend, it's only an opinion. Nothing more. Nothing less. That being said, let's get on with it.
All That You Can't Leave Behind ... the title says it all. Ambient yet hard-hitting, polished and raw. This sounds like the band's previous projects sliced and diced, thrown into a blender and then run through a strainer. The very essence of what they are now 24 years after their birth in Dublin, Ireland and on the threshold of another thousand years. No longer angry young men, no longer outcasts, no longer struggling with the demons of youth. As the world has changed since the late 1970's, so has U2. And they have fully embraced it. Bono knows the black hair dye now not only hides his reddish hair but a lot of grey. And the glasses not only shield bright blue eyes, but some crow's feet as well. The voice doesn't soar out as strong as it once did, but now more than ever he knows what to do with it and doesn't seem frightened by its power. And this is his record more than any other has been.
Fifth track "Kite" is as personal as he has ever been. The Edge soars in with his airborne guitar strings. Bono's voice takes to the wind in a song about the passage of time. He could have made it universal. He could have let it be and let everyone interpret it in their own way. It could have been anyone's song. Instead, Bono makes the decision to add in the last few lines: "The last of the rock stars/ When hip-hop drove the big cars/ In the time when new media was the big idea/ That was the big idea." Instead of giving it away, he takes a page out of John Lennon's book, and makes the song irrefutably, dangerously his own. In the year 2000 when the Internet is taking over the world and hip-hop artists rule the charts, here stands a blue-eyed Irishman with a song to his family. The audacity, bravery, or stupidity (whichever you choose) is staggering. It's almost humbling in a way. For someone who has so many reasons to keep his family, personal life and thoughts to himself thanks to the circling members of the press, he goes out and boldly puts it out in the open. "Kite" sets the mood for the album. It sums up what ATYCLB is all about. U2 in 2000 leaving the egos, the Shakespearean primer, the psychosis, the on-stage personas, the self-consciousness, the big ideas, and the so-called art behind. All they have left is just what is impossible to leave as it's part of themselves already.
"Beautiful Day" sets the tone. Coupled with a music video set in an airport, it is meant to introduce the album's theme of not having anything but what you can't live without. "Elevation", "In a Little While", and "Wild Honey" praise the joy of romantic love. "Elevation" does it with a funky, hip-hop inspired groove and is the album's most danceable number. "In A Little While" is Bono doing his best impersonation of an old soul-singer as he serenades his wife. The scratchy vocals are a bit tough to get used to, but he pulls it off surprisingly well. "Wild Honey" is a nod to the Summer of Love and 60's and 70's music, with some equally quirky lyrics and a soaring outburst from Bono that makes it apparent that no, he hasn't lost it.
"Stuck In a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" is the album's most pleasant surprise when compared with the sample released by U2.com and the stories of Eno betting Bono it would be U2's biggest hit ever. Risky bet for Eno and though I doubt he'll win his bet, "Stuck" shines with it's soul/ R&B influences and a message of hope as Bono purrs out words of encouragement. "Walk On", lyrically-speaking seems to be "Stuck's" twin. Though it rocks in the good old-fashioned sense of the word, the message is similar. A song of strength, of survival... and hope.
U2's Joshua Tree stances in big ideas like world peace, an end to terrorism and violence, seem to be revisited in "Peace on Earth" and "When I Look at the World". But instead of preaching to audiences to listen and make a difference or demanding that world leaders take responsibilty, these two seem to be again very very personal prayers set to music. This time there is no third party. No one besides Bono and God. "Peace On Earth" addresses the Troubles in Ireland with Bono asking Jesus to "throw a drowning man a line." It's also the album's weakest track musically. Though the lyrics are sad and almost bitter, the music almost dilutes the underlying anger to half strength at best. "When I Look at the World", on the other hand, is accompanied by snowy synths and echos of Chistmas carols much more so than "Peace on Earth", in spite of its title. This time, Bono doesn't name Jesus as the listening party, but his tone of a follower asking his leader what could be wrong with him that makes him not understand gives away the identity of the "you". This stance also makes him impressively vulnerable, as a man who doesn't have the answers but is desperately looking. Definitely one of the finest songs on the album, its one weakness being how suddenly it ends like they were afraid of going on for too long and so chopped the last few seconds off. A pity, that.
"New York" doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the album, with it's streetwise sound and lyrics about a midlife crisis and someone's vices. But it's a marvelous rock tune and will turn in some memorable performances live. Maybe it would have benefited from a shift in the track order. As it is, it seems out of place after "When I Look At the World" and before "Grace", which suffers as a result.
"Grace" is a perfect ending. Quiet, melodic, and beautiful in the simplest way. Though almost pounded into oblivion by the preceding "New York", it manages to hold its own. Here is Bono revisiting "Mysterious Ways", this time without the showy groove. "Grace"... a theological idea personified. Bono sweetly croons out the simple lyrics with the band keeping the hypnotic music in the background. It clocks in at 5 and a half minutes, tying "New York" for the longest track, but it slips by like a river in the mist.
All in all, the album is about a band who has been everywhere, done everything, been the best, seen all the highs, crashed heavily more than once, and has survived in the end. All That You Can't Leave Behind is the sound of that survival. It doesn't hang together as an album quite as well as some previous efforts. Its tracklisting would benefit from a rearrangement, thus benefiting the whole album as well as some individual tracks. It doesn't shock like Achtung Baby . It won't sell like The Joshua Tree . It lacks the sheer energy of War . But then again, these are men, not boys. They've grown up and they aren't afraid of showing you their scars, the chinks in the armor. They admit it. They've been there. They know. Listen up.
A music critic wrote that POP was "easy to admire, hard to love". All That You Can't Leave Behind is easy to love with its liquid melodies and gorgeous vocals. Time will tell if everyday things are as easy to admire as all those big ideas.