U2’s blues are real and inspired

Madison Capital Times by Eric Rassmussen (1988-10-15)

Their songs dig deeper, shine brighter on ‘Rattle and Hum’

Whenever a band reaches the level of superstardom U2 did with “The Joshua Tree” in 1987, that fame has a tendency to dilute the music and the message. The more people buy a record because of its value as product, the less they listen to what it is really saying.

At the same time, the tremendous number of records sold gives an artist the freedom to take the music deeper and farther than he or she ever has in the past. Some of them fail, like Prince’s “Around the World in a Day,” his spotty follow-up to “Purple Rain.”

Others rise to the challenge successfully, as Bruce Springsteen did after “Born in the U.S.A.” and U2 has done even better with its new album, “Rattle and Hum.”

U2 has taken some bad raps and some just plain bum raps (some in this very column) since they made the jump from mere stars to teen idols. But “Rattle and Hum” firmly establishes them as the most important rock band of the decade.

The band’s tour of the U.S. in 1987 brought them closer to the spiritual roots of their music. Though few would have guessed it from the sound of their early records, U2 has become a thoroughly modern blues band. Not necessarily stylistically, though several of the songs on “Rattle and Hum” are easily classified as blues tunes. U2 goes beyond mere form and produces music that is the blues in the same way John Lennon’s “COld Turkey,” Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle,” and Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” are the blues.

U2 is an exemplary purveyor of what Ralph Ellison called “The blues impulse…to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it.” The new songs are filled with images of “the needle and the spoon,” “dreams in a cage,” and “the sweet revenge of a bitter enemy.” And the music rages and burns with the fire of a band possessed.

Though “Rattle and Hum” is the album accompanying the band’s concert film of the same name, eight of the record’s 17 songs are new studio recordings. These studio tracks form the core of the album, and, combined with the live material, create a 72-minute suite of vital, passionate rock ‘n’ roll.

Of the live tracks, the weakest are, surprisingly, “Helter Skelter” which fails to live up to the psychotic fury of the Beatles’ original, and “Pride (In the Name of Love),” which is hardly distinguishable from the 1984 original.

“Bullet the Blue Sky” (preceded by 43 seconds of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner”), on the other hand, goes much further than the “Joshua Tree” version in its fearful impressions of war and America. Likewise, “Silver and Gold” turns an acoustic Delta blues into a pounding rocker. IN the middle, Bono describes the song’s origins as part of the “Sun City” anti-apartheid project, then venomously, sardonically apologizes to the apathetic in the audience for rattling on about politics: “Didn’t mean to bug ya,” he snarls, then tells the Edge to “play the blues.” Edge breaks into a typically choppy guitar solo, but he is playing the blues, despite what “purists” might argue to the contrary.

The new songs reveal a band both fascinated and confused by America; fascinated by the richness of our music, confused by the fact that what goes on in the streets is so far away from “the American Dream.” “Desire,” the Bo Diddley-beat single, rages against the “bright lights” and “protection” that America and stardom tempt with while hiding the shotgun and the needle.

U2 realizes, however, that it is in the very dirt of the underbelly of the American experience that the blues arose, with “Angel of Harlem’s” depiction of the jazz ghetto, set to a Memphis soul tune and dedicated to Billie Holiday. “When Love Comes to Town” describes similar scenes in a ferocious blues featuring the vocals and guitar of B.B. King.

The most powerful tune on “Rattle and Hum,” however, was culled from the band’s live material, and it is one of the most moving pieces of music ever put on record. The band takes back the misinterpreted “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by employing the gospel group New Voices of Freedom to sing backup. The effect is tremendous as the song builds from a quiet folk tune to full-blown gospel; and while much of the credit goes to the New Voices, only a band with U2’s musical vision could have brought about such a triumph.

U2 could have taken the easy route on this record, relying purely on live material or new songs that simply recycled old ideas. That they didn’t’ is a tribute to their talent and passion for music, and it blows away any of the superficial, hollow rewards their success has brought them. “Rattle and Hum” is a stunning testament to the power of rock music to transcend its limitations.

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