(4 march 2009)
there are times when i feel required to write about something.
for example, whenever a kennedy runs into a road block, runs for office, runs for… well, anything. it seems at those times, as the resident Group Keeper of All Kennedy-Related Things, i should have a rush of analysis at the ready. or whenever anyone in any way vaguely-related to the tv, film, or theater of my childhood, a first family, or tabloids dies. i’m there with the eugoogley. hell, i am the girl who has blogged about every email i’ve ever received regarding the dvd release of the mary tyler moore show. because these are terribly important things.
and the release of the new u2 album yesterday was a terribly important thing. but then, it really wasn’t.
i should preface this with the fact that i love u2. i counted down to every single/album/show, downloaded every findable bootleg, read every book, condemned every writer of a bad review, dissected every lyric. i believed the nonsense that all that you can’t leave behind was a step forward. i thought the endless stream of greatest hits drivel was a musical boon.
but, if we’re being honest, the only emotion i felt this past december upon hearing that u2 would finally be releasing a new album (their first in 5 years) was dread. unadulterated dread.
i didn’t really think about it much then. now, i think i didn’t think about it then because i was afraid i would wind up thinking what i’m thinking now.
which is that maybe u2 will never be u2 again. at least not my u2.
yes, they’ll be the big stadium act that puts on the same two-hour show night after night (a gimmick i’ve defended for years though deep in the pits of my heart it pisses me off). bono will keep running around the heart/circle/square during “streets.”
adam will always be stage left. edge will always be stage right. at one point during the evening, like foreign dignitaries deigning to visit the poorer nation next door, they will each saunter over and briefly acknowledge the fans on the opposite side of the stage before returning to their respective corners.
u2 will always do an encore. and in that encore, bono will always pull a girl up on the stage during “with or without you” and all us sad-saps in the audience will always be thinking, oh my God, bono just pulled that girl up ON THE STAGE and now he’s going to SING TO HER!!! to us, this will seem shocking though it is something he has done in every performance since 1989.
that is u2.
but that is not my u2. and, sadly, i’m fast coming to the realization that perhaps my u2 has died.
what we are left with is a sad, scared u2. a u2 that takes 5 years to produce an album that sounds curiously similar to the 2 albums they put out in the 5 years before that.
they have set up camp in a dead end.
this realization has left me strangely bereft. longing for the u2 that could form a band before they knew how to play their instruments. that could make four videos for a song called “one.” that could make “with or without you” run 10 minutes long. the u2 that could close an album with a song so against where they were that it could only be sung by johnny cash.
for the most part, everybody seems ok without all that, with this new u2. the guardian declared this their “greatest studio album ever.”
seriously. people. what the hell?
maybe everyone else reached the point of lowered expectations in advance of me.
or maybe this is just the normal process of realizing the heroes of your youth have become old men.
(22 january 2007)
recently, it has been nothing but pop, an album i’ve always appreciated for its jarring incompleteness. the band got rushed and didn’t have time to relentlessly perfect and dope it down. as a result, pop is a raw spiritual undoing splashed in enough glitter that it can almost masquerade as a party.
it’s an odd juxtaposition, and it can be hard to take it all in. u2 albums are legendary for their cohesiveness. listening to pop is like reading a book of short stories when you were expecting a novel.
it’s a tangle of chatter and tight spots and fast escapes and sudden shifts. the pop in the title isn’t just pop music. it’s the pop that comes after the exhilaration and freedom of achtung baby and zooropa. it’s the bubble’s burst.
to me, it’s as though the protagonist has found himself at a strip club in the middle of the day, and it suddenly hits home how far he’s wandered. in “mofo” he pleads with his dead mother to show him how to get out of the mess he’s in. and that’s pretty much the high point. you wind up with him on his knees, speaking directly to Jesus, pleading, wake up, dead man– with someone talking in the background all the while, as if to emphasize his insignificance.
this sounds terribly depressing, but i swear it’s not. because of all u2’s albums, i think this is the most honest. it captures them in a weird moment- on a bender in southern france struggling with the pressures of their art, their addictions, their women and their past. it’s not all pretty (“miami” is an ugly, ugly song), but it’s there. it’s their bullshit. it’s real.
this past week i listened to pop day and night, over and over. and for the first time, it wasn’t jarring or incomplete. it was just a glitzy little exhausted naughty mess. unapologetically so. and that’s rather beautiful. what a pity the boys have been apologizing for it ever since.
(30 september 2006)
ie. reading u2
achtung baby has always been my favorite album and i didn’t ever really understand why. it’s not an unconditional affection. i would argue it hasn’t held up quite as well as the much-maligned pop, which- though it’s a far less solid album- has such an avant garde sound that it could be released tomorrow and floor everyone. am also not a fan of the album version of “who’s gonna ride your wild horses.” the temple bar remix was better. but narratively speaking, achtung baby is without flaw. and we know how i love to speak narratively.
as a writer, i have to “read” everything- music, novels, poems, etc. and i know we’re not supposed to read anything but biography as biography, but- and this could be why i’m a biographer- i think it all is. so while i can think of achtung baby as not necessarily being bono’s journey, i can’t see it as just a random collection of great songs. as with a book, there’s a cohesive plot. however unintentional or haphazard, there is a story.
as though it were sweet valley high, i can no longer read u2’s oeuvre as anything but a continual narrative. because it so obviously is a continual narrative. the continental american tour of the joshua tree and rattle & hum leaves the protagonist dazed and exhillarated, stumbling about the berlin subway system in the opener of achtung baby. he’s done with the past and he’s frantic for something new. he screws it up and it takes him thirty-four songs to recover. you could love “mysterious ways” without ever having that context. but, to me, u2 is an important band because of that context.
reading the complete u2- ie. playing their albums in a chronological cycle- my favorite chapter comes between pop and all that you can’t leave behind. when the page is turned from the defeated, exhausted plea of “wake up dead man,” where the protagonist is literally on his knees begging for the second coming, to the total euphoria of “beautiful day.” obviously to get to the beautiful day, you have to plod through a whole hell of crap. lyrically, u2 spent all of the 90s doing this and i’d never before realized how that pulled together to make a central point.
in the grim little trip of achtung baby, there’s infatuation, adultery, manipulation, desperation, treachery, forgiveness, euphoria, resignation, love, hope, and a phone call from hell. it’s about taking a risk and getting burned and wounding everyone around you. it’s no accident that the protagonist continues reassuring himself with the line “it’s alright.” the ticking bomb in “love is blindness” leaves him paralyzed, numbed- by images, the past, the future- in the hypnotic zooropa. for nine tracks, he is “faraway, so close!” yet he cannot let go. he wanders away and doesn’t even have the heart to sing the last song himself. instead he hands it over to johnny cash and winds up in the discotheque of pop, the glitzy tangle of conversational tidbits born from a month-long bender in the south of france.
the narrative cohesiveness between these albums has fascinated me ever since all that you can’t leave behind was released. all the critics said u2 were “getting back to their sound.” what resonated with me was that their protagonist, after falling and crawling and pleading and running and wandering, had finally dragged himself to the ledge and made the jump. the jump that is laid out in “zoo station” when he says he’s ready for what’s next. when he repeats that he’s ready for the push.
and we believe him and we think achtung baby is that jump but it isn’t. listen to “mysterious ways” and you hear the line while you can stand there, you could move on this moment, follow this feeling. he wasn’t ready for the push in track 1 and he stayed put through track 9. achtung baby and the two albums after are all the scary shit that happens when you don’t jump, when you hold back, when you run away, when you try to throw your arms around the world. it’s only with the final plea of “wake up dead man” that he at long last takes the leap (i swear he’s gliding through the air in the last 40 seconds). and it’s only in “beautiful day” that he realizes the leap wasn’t so scary after all. that after the flood, all the colors came out.