Sunday, December 20, 2009

BEST OF THE '00s: U2

At the start of the '00s, U2 were in a weird place.  In the early '90s, they reinvented themselves in as radical a way as any other rock band ever had. Going from the Americana-influenced ernestness of Joshua Tree and Rattle & Hum, they returned as jaded techno-fuelled rock stars who didn't take much seriously with Achthung Baby. On paper, it would seen like a disaster, but as we all know, it worked incredibly well.  (For a pretty amazing analysis of the album, check out the 33 1/3 series book that features the album).

Some may argue that they took that approach too far on Zooropa and especially Pop. Actually, I felt that Pop was a bit misunderstood: the lyrical matter of the album is actually pretty heavy, it's just that they led with the single "Discotheque" and the tour was kind of a kitch-fest.  Moving in the millenium (everyone used to use that word all the time), they stripped down and went back to basics.

Actually, before they released their new album, they did a few new songs on the soundtrack to The Million Dollar Hotel, which was produced by Bono (and who did a few solo tracks on it). That film was a bit of a mess, and was Bono's first and last real foray as a filmmaker (unfortunately it didn't deter him from being involved in what may be Broadway's biggest ever flop, Spider-Man). The songs were stripped down and a good sign of where the band was going.

When they released All That You Can't Leave Behind in 2000, they were back. Four classic singles, "Beautiful Day," "Walk On," "Elevation" and "Stuck In A Moment That You Can't Get Out Of." Plus great album tracks like "Kite" and "In A Little While." It was a classic. When they hit the road, it was on a simple stage, with a heart-shaped track that went into the audience, allowing some fans to actually watch the show from inside the stage. After 9/11, they seemed to be one of the only bands, if not the only band, that mattered. Their performance of "Walk On" at the America: A Tribute To Heroes telethon was classic, and their halftime show at the Super Bowl that year was the best ever.

The follow-up, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, wasn't quite so powerful, but was still a great album, and "Vertigo" was an undeniably great single. And "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own," which Bono wrote for his father, was one of their most emotional moments. There was another great tour, which was shot for the concert film U23D. That era also saw two cool U2 collaborations: they recorded an incredible version of their classic "One" with Mary J. Blige, and also with Green Day on a cover of punk rock band The Skids' "The Saints Are Coming" (which they performed at the New Orleans Saints' first game back in New Orleans aftre Katrina). They also did a great cover of John Lennon's Instant Karma for a Lennon tribute by the same name (a benefit for Amnesty International), a single released only in Ireland and featuring lots of Irish stars, "The Ballad Of Ronnie Drew." And they did a great Christmas single, a cover of Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas."

Their latest album, No Line On The Horizon, is good but not great - but the tour has been mindblowing. And U2 are one of the only bands -- if not the only band -- who I feel like can still crank out a classic after more than thirty years together.  I think they've been disappointed by their favorite bands, and they don't want to be the band that does that. On the other hand, as Neil Young sings in "Thrasher," "they had the best selection, they were poisoned by protection," and when you have multiple homes, millions in the band, etc., it's hard to grab that hunger that you sometimes need to create a classic. It's even harder when you are in a band (as opposed to a solo artist).

Some people have a problem with rock stars as activists: I don't. I respect Bono for being involved in the One campaign or Project (Red), or The Edge 's involvement in Music Rising. I think it is a logical extension of the music, and  I also think it fuels them in some way.  I mean, if all you do is make music and enjoy your millions, I don't know if you still have that fire. At least with U2, they have the audacity (of hope?) to try and make the world a better place through their music. Not many bands still do that - and not many bands still can.

More Best Of The '00s: Bob Dylan
Willie Nelson
Aimee Mann
Jeff Tweedy
David Johansen
Levon Helm
The Beatles
Jim James

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