The Discs

Edmonton Journal by Shawn Ohler (1997-06-12)

Perhaps more than any band in rock’n‘roll history, U2 has sustained its long career by constantly reinventing itself. Over the course of 17 years, nine albums and two EPs, the group has changed from stridently political Irish boys into saintly pop stars into homage-paying bluesmen into pop-culture ironists. Though they’ll never be remembered as cutting-edge innovators, U2 has pushed the musical envelope. Whether you look back to 1980, when U2’s powerful debut, Boy, flew in the face of the bloated radio-friendly excesses of the day, or three months ago, when Pop united dance music and traditional rock songwriting in a controversial marriage, the band has never been afraid to take chances. Here are some thoughts on the entire U2 catalog.

Album title: Boy
Released: 1980
Worldwide sales: 2.5 million
Rating: Three-and-a-half stars out of five
Boy, U2’s first record, was a shot through the heart of the vacuous, post-disco slop that dominated airwaves at the last decade’s turn. (Artists with No. 1 singles in 1980: Olivia Newton-John, Captain and Tennille and K.C. and the Sunshine Band.) Boy’s lyrics, mostly earnest, yearning swatches of adolescent angst, are nothing remarkable. What is remarkable is U2’s punk energy, stripped-down instrumentation and grasp of anthemic melodies on songs like I Will Follow. Frighteningly good stuff considering Bono and the boys were barely 20. It’s an album as important, though perhaps not quite as good, as the 1980s’ other landmark debut, R.E.M.‘s Murmur.

Album title: October
Released: 1981
Sales: 2.5 million
Rating: Two-and-a-half stars out of five A sophomore slump of sorts. October contained nothing really impressive or memorable other than the propulsive Gloria, which would become an early live staple of the band. The record’s noteworthy mostly for its lyrics about religion and God, themes which would recur throughout U2’s work. Otherwise, it’s a rare miss among a long string of hits.

Album title: War Released: 1983 Sales: Seven million Rating: Four stars out of five War is U2’s first must-have record. Many will recall Sunday Bloody Sunday, the politically charged single that marries drummer Larry Mullen’s instantly recognizable marching band riff with Bono’s jarring pleas for an end to Northern Ireland’s “troubles.” But an even bigger standout here is the more personal New Year’s Day, the most sonically varied song U2 had ever recorded. The Edge piles on the layers of guitars, while Bono and a lonely piano carry the gorgeous melody. It stands up 14 years later.

Album title: Under a Blood Red Sky
Released: 1983
Sales: 7.5 million
Rating: Three-and-a-half stars out of five
An eight-song live EP, Under a Blood Red Sky confirms the raw power U2’s early studio work hints at. It contains goosebump-raising versions of Gloria, I Will Follow and Bono’s memorable apology for Sunday Bloody Sunday: “This song is not a rebel song.” Ends U2’s first phase with a bang.

Album title: The Unforgettable Fire
Released: 1984
Sales: 6.5 million
Rating: Four-and-a-half stars out of five The Unforgettable Fire was a landmark record in U2’s career. New producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno replaced Steve Lillywhite and gave U2 a bigger, lusher, more ethereal sound, rounding off some of the band’s harder edges and tapping Bono’s enormous potential as a singer. Songs like Bad and the title track are stunning. The album’s also the beginning of the Irish lads’ obsession with America, with odes to Martin Luther King (on Pride, maybe the best song of the 1980s) and Elvis Presley. The record marked the first of many times U2 would reinvent itself.

Album title: Wide Awake in America
Released: 1985
Sales: Two million
Rating: Two-and-a-half stars out of five Two good live cuts – Bad and A Sort of Homecoming – and two unremarkable B-sides. Record company contract filler? Must have been.

Album title: The Joshua Tree
Released: 1987
Sales: 15 million
Rating: Five stars out of five A critical and commercial hit, The Joshua Tree remains U2’s magnum opus, the album the band will be noted for long after its members are dead and gone. Even the throwaway tracks – One Tree Hill, In God’s Country, Red Hill Mining Town – are excellent. And the singles! Simply some of the most stirring pop songs written in the past 20 years. With Or Without You, Where The Streets Have No Name and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For are gorgeous, timeless classics. Meanwhile, throbbing rockers like Bullet The Blue Sky and the spooky Exit showed the band hadn’t gone soft. An absolute gem from start to finish.

Album title: Rattle And Hum
Released: 1988
Sales: 9.5 million
Rating: Three-and-a-half stars out of five While admittedly a strange career move, Rattle and Hum, a hybrid live record/studio album, was maligned a touch too much by critics of the day. Many slammed U2’s dalliance with the blues as awkward and token. What’s up with that? If five London boys from The Rolling Stones could pay homage to blues and soul in the ’60s, why couldn’t four Dubliners do it in the ’80s? Besides, some of the music is pretty darn good -JDesire, When Love Comes to Town (with B.B. King), killer live versions of Bullet the Blue Sky and The Beatles’ Helter Skelter. And God Part II might be the angriest, rawest song U2 has ever made. Nothing wrong with that.

Album title: Achtung Baby
Released: 1991
Sales: 10 million
Rating: Four-and-a-half stars out of five After a decade of projecting ultra-sincerity and avoiding the cliches of pop superstardom like the plague, U2 did a 180-degree turn on Achtung Baby, a brash, glam, ironic leap forward into the ’90s. The band reinvented itself once again, both in their guises (Bono took to wearing leather pants and wraparound shades; bassist Adam Clayton started dating supermodels) and their music. The riffs are more metallic, the beats borrow equally from underground nightclubs and the Apollo Theatre. Sex and world-weary love songs replaced politics as U2’s raison d’etre, for better or for worse. Personally, I couldn’t care less. Does it rock? is the important question. The answer is yes.

Album title: Zooropa
Released: 1993
Sales: Seven million
Rating: Two stars out of five Worthy only because of its unpredictability, Zooropa was an ill-conceived experiment with more sonic tricks than coherent songs. Some of Brian Eno’s and new collaborator Flood’s ambient soundscapes are interesting, but there are few memorable melodies to anchor them. Low points include Lemon, where Bono sings in an unfortunate adenoidal falsetto, like the guy in Fine Young Cannibals with a head cold. The Wanderer, sung by Johnny Cash, is simply sad. A disappointing effort after Achtung Baby’s promise of rebirth. The fact that it sold seven million copies without a hit single is a testimony to the band’s enduring star power.

Album title: Pop
Released: 1997
Sales: 300,000 so far in Canada
Rating: Five stars out of five Perhaps no record has done so much to split a band’s fan base than U2’s ninth full-length record, Pop. Some old fans resent the band’s new direction – a fusion of electronic dance music with rock’n‘roll. Others celebrate that U2 remains as forward-looking as ever. Here’s the deal. Pop is brilliant, a record that manages to challenge with both its massive sound and evocative lyrics. Don’t judge it by its trashy pop-art cover. Pop offers so much more than kitsch. There are intimate songs (If You Wear That Velvet Dress), authentic underground club jams (Mofo), aching quests for God (Wake Up Dead Man) and soaring pop (Last Night on Earth, Gone). This is a band at the height of its creative power. It’s rock’n‘roll’s present, and its future. Where U2 goes from here is anybody’s guess – and that’s a great thing.

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