Songs Of Innocence

Oh, Songs Of Innocence, how have I misjudged thee? Let me count the ways. I will start by telling you that this is obviously the album that has changed rating the most this year, going up and up as the year has progressed. At the start of the year, believe it or not, I had the album as the second or third worst of all U2 albums, and if you were to go back through the ratings I have given songs this year you would see they do not add up to the rating I have it at now. Far from familiarity breeding contempt, this album has proven an ongoing theme of the year that for me familiarity with U2 songs has bred love for them.

It surprises me that I have Songs Of Innocence rated where it is, essentially even with How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb at around the top third mark, slightly above average but not into really good territory. That seems way too high given where it was at the start of the year, but somehow I feel that it might be too low even now. Maybe the end of the year, and this review, have come too soon for the album. Maybe by the end of next year, when I’ve seen them live a few more times (I hope!) it will have climbed even higher, I could definitely see it pass a couple of albums to sit in fourth place, and it might even have an outside shot at All That You Can’t Leave Behind for third. That’s how impressed I have been with it this year.

I told the story earlier in the year that I sat and listened to the Apple conference where they released Songs Of Innocence. I had heard rumors that U2 would perform, and even rumors that they would release a new album, and I was astounded and delighted when they were actually true. I was the person sitting there trying to get it to download, not one of the many who complained that they got a free album. I listened to it a number of times over the next couple of weeks, and liked some of the songs, but it wasn’t really impressing me. I had a conversation with a family member a few weeks after it was released where I said that I thought it was fairly weak, that it reminded me of the early stuff (how right I was!) but overall wasn’t that good (how wrong I was!).

Like all the other reviews I’ve talked about during the year, it took a while for Songs Of Innocence to warm up to, and indeed it took seeing several of the songs live to really get to liking them. Getting into the shows, seeing the theme of the shows and the album, really added to it for me, and changed my opinion so much. As U2 have said themselves, they are a live band first and foremost, and that’s where they get the songs to shine.

I’m not going to go through the album song by song, it really has good points everywhere. Take a look at my reviews through the year, and add a couple of points to many of the reviews, and you’ll see their relative good and bad. I will tell you that my top songs are Cedarwood Road and Iris, along with The Troubles, which hasn’t been played live enough for my liking, it was my favorite on first listen. I will also tell you that my least favorite is Volcano, I just never really got into it, and again maybe it hasn’t been played live enough. And oddly enough the two extra songs that only showed up on the deluxe version, Lucifer’s Hands and Crystal Ballroom, have gone from initial dislike to really liked as well. Like I said, I need to hear songs live to really like them.

My rating for Songs Of Innocence: 5.6 / 10

No Line On The Horizon

The interesting thing about No Line On The Horizon is how the album reflects back to the early days. Not like the way Songs Of Innocence does, but rather in the way I have scored the album. You see, the early few albums had a wide range of songs, from the really good and great to the execrable, but the middle period for the band tightened up considerably, with a great album having nothing weak on it and a poor album (Pop) having nothing great on it. That trend tended to continue all the way until No Line, which went back to the early days by having some great music and some terrible music.

The album begins really well with the title track, which is one of those songs that has grown on me over the years since first hearing it. If not a top tier song, it is certainly in that upper-middle class. It is followed by Magnificent, which by the name tells you it is good, but by listening it does as well. I rate it the same as No Line, but really on a good day I might rate it higher. Another that keeps growing on me as we go. Followed by Moment Of Surrender, yet another fantastic song and a trio that makes really good start to the album.

We take a little dip with Unknown Caller, which I gave a 5 when I rated it, but I also said that I was conflicted, because there are so many days when I dislike it and so many days when I like it a lot. A very dichotomous song to listen to, having written that review back in May I am still thinking that this is the most flip-floppy song of all that I remember. But we’ll leave that thought aside for a moment, because the next song is I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight, another great song. It lends itself to the split personality of the album, being one of the songs at the very top of the ratings for the album, and indeed for all-time.

But then we take a slip through the rest of the album. It’s not quite the second half of the album, since it’s songs six through eleven, but close enough. We take a dive down through the likes of Get On Your Boots, Stand Up Comedy, Fez, White As Snow and Cedars Of Lebanon, none of which are good and some of which are pretty poor. This feels like a case of them having half an album and trying to figure out how to fill it up, if the second half had been as good as the first the album would have been their best ever. As it is, hardly anyone outside U2 fans even heard it.

And since you’re a U2 fan, I know you’re reading this and noticing that I left something out. Yes, of course, I didn’t mention Breathe, because it is in the second half of the album, buried in the mire. I rated Breathe the same as Crazy, but that doesn’t make them the same level, not really. While Crazy would be in the top twenty, Breathe is a top ten all-time U2 song for me.

So we can see from this that the album was so widespread, from a couple of the greatest U2 songs ever (believe it or not, there’s only two U2 albums with more top twenty songs than No Line has), to a bunch of weak stuff that may land in the bottom twenty. We might just pretend we didn’t hear some of it while we listen to Breathe again.

My rating for No Line On The Horizon: 5.8 / 10

How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb

If I drew a curve of the songs I’ve rated, it would be a pretty good bell curve, as I had intended from the start. It would tend to bulge a little to the left due to all the non-album songs, which usually rate less well than album songs, but you would still see that shape with a hump in the middle and tails out to each side. It is somewhat similar with albums, most of them tend to land in the middle and a few out to the extremes. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is one that falls right around the middle of the hump, just a little above average, but the interesting thing is that it is a very divided album, with some great songs and some terrible songs. In fact if you divide the album into two halves, the first half would rate very highly, and the second half quite poorly. I don’t know if there is another U2 album that splits so much as Atomic Bomb.

Not a perfect split of course, there is a dud in the first half and a great song in the second half, but overall it’s true. The first half of the album has Vertigo, Love And Peace and City Of Blinding Lights, all fantastic songs which I gave 8s to in my ratings, as I did with Original Of The Species in the other half of the album. But Miracle Drug is the second song on the album, and I suspect I would have it in my bottom ten all-time of U2 songs, I dislike it that much. If Original and Miracle Drug switched places they would fit much better into my theme for the album.

Atomic Bomb (the name supposedly came from a nickname Bono gave his dad, Atomic Bob) was a twist from All That You Can’t Leave Behind. That album had been a much calmer, more introspective and melodious album. Atomic Bomb took off with Vertigo, much faster, darker and deeper than before, and continued through the first half of the album in that fashion. Actually now I think about it, the rockier songs on the album are the ones I like the best, while the slower ones not so much. Interesting. Also interesting that the ones that have stood the test of time - i.e. the ones that are being played today on tour - are those same faster songs.

I can’t say much about the album that I haven’t already said in reviews of the songs on it. At the time it felt like a shift in the band’s music, not a seismic shift like Achtung Baby, but certainly a shift from ATYCLB, which had been a shift from Pop. So maybe it felt like a searching, rather than a shift, looking for something new that was out there. But the following album, No Line, was a definite musical shift back toward what ATYCLB had been. That tends now to make How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb stand out a little in the timeline, rather than being part of a continuous flow, more like a blip that quickly came and went, shone like stars for a little while before the blinding lights went away.

I like Atomic Bomb, but the problem is what I said earlier, I like some of it and dislike others. I suspect this album is the one where I skip songs more than most if not all others. Not because I don’t like those songs, some of them are good by themselves, but rather that when I get into it I want to hear those really good songs together, and ignore the rest. I should probably make a playlist from the album, rearrange the order to satisfy what I think it should be.

My rating for How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb: 5.6 / 10

All That You Can't Leave Behind

It felt like forever since there had been a U2 album when they released All That You Can’t Leave Behind. I think it was because after the weirdness of Pop (I use that word advisedly) there was something that seemed missing for a while. All That You Can’t Leave Behind was a breath of fresh air, and not just because it had a long title that I can use to fill in the word count. But speaking of, have you ever noticed how word counts changed over the years with the band? Most notably in the album titles, which started with one word (Boy, October War), then went to three (The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Rattle And Hum), then went back down (Achtung Baby, Zooropa, Pop), and back up again (All That You Can’t Leave Behind, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, No Line On The Horizon). Now we go to Songs Of Innocence and Songs Of Experience. After that will have to be another three word album. Okay, diversion over.

I remember being astounded by All That You Can’t Leave Behind. It was a wildly different album from Pop, it was really quite different from most of the others. There were hints of different things, it was rock and roll much more than many. I would suggest it most sounded like The Joshua Tree, but even that’s a bit of a stretch. It was more mellow, more laid back, somewhat more musical than other albums. That sounds weird when I put it like that, but it’s a little bit true. We’ve all heard them grow up through their career, from the early days when they were enthusiastic but inexperienced, through the experience and power of the middle days, and as they passed by that little weird phase they kind of grew up a lot. It led to an excellent album, outstanding in some ways, and one that I rate the third best album they’ve released.

They had the musical and emotional power in Walk On, a song for the ages. They had a string of decent and above average songs through the middle of the album, and little that is weak. And that’s been the thing about many of the albums, the difference between being good and great is that you have a short tail, nothing weak at the end. Almost every album has a top song or two, but to get to the best albums you have to eliminate the bad stuff at the bottom, the songs that get kept because there’s nothing else to replace them. All That You Can’t Leave Behind does this well, the lowest rated song being a four.

There are a couple of real rockers in Beautiful Day and Elevation, but most of the rest of the album is smooth and relaxing. It is another of those albums where I can put it on and wallow in the music, listen attentively and deeply, or that I can turn on and use as background noise. It works both ways, and I like that about it.

My rating for All That You Can’t Leave Behind: 6.3 / 10

Pop

I’m going to remove all suspense and tell you right now that Pop is U2’s second worst album, at least in my opinion. We all know the story of the album, the fact they went a little out to the edge of things and it didn’t work. They’ve done that many times over the years and sometimes it has worked in a great way - Achtung Baby - and other times it just hasn’t worked at all. Pop is the latter, with almost nothing on the album working well. They tried I think to grab the zeitgeist, to get into the club scene and so on, but really they are better when they are leading the way.

The way to make a poor album is simple, make one without any hit songs. That sounds obvious, but there is a clear curve on every album from great to poor, and there are some otherwise average albums that have been pulled up by one or two great songs. Look at War, which rates just a tenth of a point higher than Pop, and that’s simply because of one song on War that got a ten - I haven’t reviewed it yet, but you can guess which one. If not for that song, the curve these two albums follows is almost identical, several in the average range and several in the poor range.

One of the things that colors the image of Pop is the way it was promoted by the band. Their whole facetious take on the music of the time, trying to say that the music in the 1990s sucked, and the idea of the attacks on consumerism and the way the world was going at the time, well, it just didn’t work. Their weird costumes and presenting the tour in a department store, the public just didn’t get it. And that made U2 a bit of a parody in the eye of the public, especially after Bono had done all that weird stuff with MacPhisto on the prior tour, people just began thinking of them as full of themselves and getting kind of weird. That may have been a death blow to the band, but fortunately they came back to their senses in later albums and moved back to the top again, for the most part. There are still people who have an image of U2 in a giant lemon, and that’s the way they will always think of them.

My highest rating for a song on Pop is for Please, the review of which will be coming up in about a week, for specific reasons I will explain then. Please is a really good song, and really emotional for me, but it doesn’t have great resonance with the public, it hasn’t had great legs with the band, and it isn’t able to carry the album by itself. When you then have to drop a couple of points to get down to Wake Up Dead Man and Velvet Dress (which have a lot in common), you can see that things aren’t well in Pop land (or the PopMart if you prefer).

The album starts with Discotheque, which I think surprised many people, myself included. It seems like one of those parody songs, especially the way they presented it. It slowly moves through the early songs, then gets to what I think of as a trilogy, If God Will Send His Angels, Staring At The Sun, and Last Night On Earth. They make for a middle of the album that is just a little odd, kind of an attempt to go somewhat post-apocalyptic with the music, and again I’m not sure that’s a good thing. It doesn’t exactly bring on a sense of happiness to sing about those things, does it? It’s kind of like the Smashing Pumpkins and their Mellon Collie album, which had one CD of sunshine and one CD of darkness, and there was a clear difference in mood between them. The problem with Pop is that there isn’t that sunshine CD to flip to when you get depressed by the other.

Harsh, right? I don’t have much good to say about it all. They move on through Miami and Playboy Mansion, which are once again throwaways, junk or filler for the album. But they end on a good note, or maybe I should say interesting note, with Velvet Dress, Please and Dead Man ending the album. Interesting that my three highest rated songs are all at the end? Yes, especially given what followed on the next album. Those three songs certainly seemed to hit the ideas of All That You Can’t Leave Behind better than they did Pop, didn’t they?

Pop was in a gap between other albums that was probably the longest in U2 history (not checking specific dates here), it filling in a space of seven years between Zooropa and ATYCLB. I have to say that gap now feels a lot longer than seven years. Even the wait for recent albums technically may have been longer, but they just didn’t feel longer. Pop kind of filled the void in the late 90s, but it was just fluff or filler, and that’s what leaves a disappointing taste.

My rating for Pop: 4.6 / 10

Zooropa

I’m not saying that Zooropa was a bad album. I’m not. In terms of U2 albums I have it rated just below average (although numerically it is just above average, but you then have to remember that there is no zero rating and so 5.5 would be average, thus again just below average) (yeah, sorry for nerd diversion there). Zooropa’s biggest problem was that it followed Achtung Baby, and thus the drop-off (a full two points) seemed like a huge chasm of failure. Not true.

Let’s just say that the album was very experimental for its time in the U2 pantheon. If Achtung Baby was a huge right turn, a chopping down of The Joshua Tree, then Zooropa was, umm, another right turn? A left turn? No, that would put them back in the same direction, which is clearly not the case. I know, it would be a downturn.

The album starts with the title track, an immediate odd sound, followed by Babyface and then Numb, even odder. Numb is one of those songs where you listen to it again and again, not because you have to, but more along the lines of watching a car wreck, can’t take your eyes off it. And you know that Daddy Isn’t Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car when it’s this terrible.

Yeah okay, so I can make a whole bunch of puns along these lines, doesn’t make this review any better. I don’t know, what is there that I can say about this album that I haven’t said a hundred different ways before? The early albums had the excuse that the band was still learning their craft. Their middle albums had them exploding in the musical universe. Achtung was a big leap into something different. Zooropa was supposed to be a quick followup, but frankly most of it didn’t work too well.

But the real thing about Zooropa is that nothing stands out, in either direction. The highest rated song I have is a 7, there’s only a couple of albums who’s best song is that low, and the lowest is a 3, and there are only a few albums with the lowest song that high. In other words it’s really average, as the rating suggests. I don’t know why I keep harping on this point, I suspect I’m trying to say that this is the most average U2 album, and that because of that I don’t listen to it nearly as much as any other. I mean, if you were looking for a good song, you’d take a highly rated song, and then end up listening to the rest of that album. If you listen like that, you end up not getting to the album that is the most mediocre.

My top three songs, in no particular order, are Stay, Lemon and The Wanderer. I really like the treatment that Wanderer has gotten during Innocence + Experience, but not enough to raise it up. I like Stay, there are days I want to listen to it, but it’s still outside the best songs for me. And Lemon, well, haven’t gotten to that yet this year. Enjoy but again nothing special.

Maybe that’s why I keep repeating the average and mediocre lines, because that’s what I’m feeling as I write this today. Subject matter.

My rating for Zooropa: 5.3 / 10

Achtung Baby

I know you’ve been waiting for this, and I’m going to start with the spoiler: I have Achtung Baby rated as the second best U2 album, a little behind The Joshua Tree. You may or may not be surprised by this, there are people who think that Joshua is the best U2 album, there are people who think it’s Achtung, and then there are some misguided folks who think it’s neither of those. But for me the best is Joshua Tree, Achtung just behind, and honestly a fairly big gap back to third place.

What do those two albums do that none of the others do? They have a short tail. By that I mean that while any album can get a song that’s a 9 or a 10, the best albums push their worst songs as high as possible. In this case, both Joshua and Achtung’s lowest rated songs got a 6, whereas there’s not another album who’s worst is better than a 4. That’s what I mean, if you care as much about that last song on the album as you do the first, it’s going to be good. I’m not saying that U2 haven’t cared in other cases (well, not all of them), but there are cases where there are songs at the end of an album that you think to yourself “wow, this is the best of what they had left at the end?”

So, Achtung Baby, right? You can’t go wrong, start to finish. It starts in with the weird sounds of Zoo Station, you immediately feel you’re heading into uncharted territory, especially after the Joshua Tree/Rattle and Hum pairing in the years beforehand. As Bono said, “the sound of four men chopping down the Joshua Tree.” And it is, it is wildly different. Even Better Than The Real Things follows, you’re starting to take off, then One hits, and that’s one of those instant classics we’ve talked about. Until The End Of The World, which is so light on top (believe it or not) but so deep and dark and mysterious underneath, it’s amazing. Then jumping back and forth between a slow cut like So Cruel to fast and wild like The Fly. And finally rolling downhill through the end, the last few songs slowing down (interestingly, just like The Joshua Tree did) to Love Is Blindness. Great stuff all the way through.

Of all the songs on Achtung, obviously One stands out as the best, but it’s two songs down at the end, Acrobat and Ultraviolet, which I actually rate as highly as One (they’re all 9s, although One is higher in the 9 list). I love both those songs, as do a significant fraction of the U2 audience, which is why we see pleas for them to play Acrobat (and the hilarious performance of the tribute band Acrobat the other day). I agree with all those hopes and dreams, and since we got Shine Like Stars yesterday, maybe we can push the envelope a little further and get Acrobat in the mix.

Wildly off-topic, most of this, I know.

My rating for Achtung Baby: 7.4 / 10

Achtung Baby: Kindergarten

It’s interesting listening to the Achtung Baby: Kindergarten album. If you don’t know, this is an album that came out on the deluxe Achtung Baby, and it contains early versions of the songs on the real album. The interesting part is comparing the songs to what was actually released on the final version of the album, to see the chops and changes that the band made. I don’t know at what point each song was taken, whether they were the first recording or the hundredth, halfway through the process or almost at the end. But it is still interesting, hearing a part in one of these songs in one place, knowing it moved somewhere else completely by the end. Or hearing the music change, bits added or removed here and there.

Not going to go through each song individually, because if you’re really interested you can listen to it yourself. But there are a few things I want to say about some of the songs. For example Baby Zoo Station, starting off the album, sounding exactly like the final version for the first 30 seconds or so, then it starts to go off track, as you notice the guitar is clipping a little compared to what you’re used to hearing. Then there’s Baby One, which goes off track right from the start, with this weird high guitar sound that is so off the charts different to the final. Or Baby Until The End Of The World, which although it has different sounds in it, you can really hear the final song pushing through.

Baby Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses sounds quite fun with the guitar the way it is, and then you get the lyrics, which are wildly different. It’s hard to tell on some of them, because they’re so familiar, but I was amazed to hear the opening line be “Your innocence, and experience,” a theme that has come back around again today. Baby Trying To Throw Your Arms has just the oddest sound to open the song, there’s a jangly guitar in there that seems so familiar but so different. Baby Ultraviolet, one of my favorites, but the “Sometimes I feel like I don’t know” that starts the full song is pushed all the way to the end. An interesting lesson in not only changing the lyrics (there’s a lot of lines in there that are changed a little, some a lot, some thrown away), but also moving the lyrics around, like this verse working better in a different place.

One of the most interesting things to me, something that stood out in almost every song: the bass in these songs is much stronger than it ends up being in the end. Somehow they decide to reduce Adam’s part in the songs, most every time. Weird, right? And then there’s also a thought that some of Edge’s stuff got toned down a little too. Like they start way outside on both ends, and end up pulling back towards the middle.

I have to rate this pretty low, for the simple reason that it is relatively gimmicky. It’s something that I won’t listen to very often, because if I want to hear the songs I’m going to listen to the full album. Historical interest really, kind of like reading through an author's first draft. Actually what I would say is that this is something that should be listened to by a lot of young bands, and comparing it to the full album, just as an idea of how songs should develop and change, and a little insight into the amount of change and work that the best band in the world does to put their stuff out. In other words, don’t record your first take and release that, it can always use work.

My rating for Achtung Baby: Kindergarten: 3 / 10

Rattle And Hum

Rattle And Hum, what can I say? One of the seminal moments of my life. This is supposed to be a review of the album, not the movie, but they are clearly so intertwined that I find it hard to separate them. If I write here about the album but say things about the movie, please forgive me, and vice versa when I get to a post about the movie.

The album is a mix of live songs and new recordings, and because of that it tends to feel a little disjointed. We’re not listening to something purely live, a concert album, and we’re not listening to some fresh new music. Not only that but the mix is throughout the album, it’s not like they did a side one that is live and a side two that is recorded. The running order is similar to but not the same as the movie, there are three songs (Hawkmoon, Love Rescue Me and God Part II) that appear on the album but not the movie. On the other hand, there aren’t any new songs that are on the movie but not the album, although some of the versions are different.

So what’s the deal with that? Why produce both? I don’t know, and I don’t know why it is so mixed up. It’s not like they’re simulating a show mixed with new music that they hadn’t played live at the time. The running order for the album is disjointed, and not just the live/recorded mix, but there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason for the order. There is a little bit of songs going together, the segment from Love Rescue Me to God Part II works pretty well, but in general it feels like I’m pinging back and forth like a pinball.

The album had a interesting mix of people on it, perhaps more guests than on any other U2 album. BB King was the highlight of course, along with Bob Dylan hiding in the back a little, but also various backing musicians like the gospel choir on Still Haven’t Found, the guys who sang Freedom For My People, and the horns and trumpets on Angel Of Harlem. The band was doing their tour of the US, looking at various historic musicians and in some ways trying to emulate them. I think they succeeded, certainly from my point of view, in exposing some of those singers to the U2 audience, but I can see how there was a backlash against them for it. At the time they were not in that level of superstardom that people thought, and by taking the approach they did, they took away from themselves a little. But now, knowing how huge the band has become since, I think you could say that what they did worked for them, and for the musical history they were looking at. It all works out in the end.

I have Rattle And Hum rated a little above average, and that also puts it a little above average in terms of U2 albums. Remember I rate fairly harshly though, so I’ll reiterate that an average U2 album is, for me, the equivalent of the best albums for anyone else.

My rating for Rattle And Hum: 5.7 / 10

The Joshua Tree

Ahhh, The Joshua Tree. What more is there to say about it than that? The greatest album ever written, by anyone, ever. Well, that’s my opinion. The lowest rated song on The Joshua Tree would be the highest rated song on some albums. Heck, some of the songs left off The Joshua Tree could be top five songs on other albums. Yes, that is just how good and how fertile the band was during that period. That was the time when everything they touched turned to gold.

The album opens perfectly, the building resonance of Where The Streets Have No Name, incidentally the greatest song that U2 have made. Then it rolls on into I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, a top five, and With Or Without You, a top ten. So three songs in a row are U2 top ten songs, how can you get any better than that? You could argue that the rest of the album pales in comparison, but that’s ridiculous, because again I could say take away those three songs and the rest of the album would still be top three or four of all U2 albums. That’s how crazy good the whole album is.

That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the rest of it. The Bullet The Blue Sky/Running To Stand Still combo is perfect, not topically the same but musically so, they run together so well. The first half of side two (how many of you even understand what I say when I say that a record has two sides?) is the lighter part of the album, a little bit of fun, a little bit of whimsy, something to cool down on after the deep ending to side one and before the deep ending to side two. And speaking of the deep ending, Exit and Mothers Of The Disappeared work so well together to pull you down into a introspective, contemplative state which is only broken when the album recycles back to those opening notes on Streets.

And, for the most personal note: I named my son Joshua based solely on this album. When my wife and I were figuring out baby names, we didn’t know whether it would be a boy or a girl. I immediately had the name Joshua, I told her why, and she liked it and was happy with it, even with the reasoning. She even suggested that his middle name could be Tree (although I think she might have been kidding). We had several names for girls (Grace was my favorite, you can probably guess why), but we never narrowed it down to one. Thanks to a slip by the doctor we were fairly sure it was going to be a boy, but if it had turned out to be a girl we would have been struggling in the delivery room to pick one. So we got a little lucky, and he got a great name.

My rating for The Joshua Tree: 7.8 / 10

The Unforgettable Fire

When I first listened to the album The Unforgettable Fire I wasn’t sure what I was hearing. I was coming backwards from The Joshua Tree, and the difference between the two is quite profound. The Joshua Tree is a rock album, whereas The Unforgettable Fire at times feels like an art project, one of those “experience” albums people release. It has the clearest influence from Brian Eno of any U2 album.

The Unforgettable Fire is a mix of songs, everything is either good or bad, there’s nothing in the middle. In fact it is the only U2 album where I have no songs rated either a five or a six. Ironically though the average song ends up in that middle ground, because I have half the songs rated highly and half the songs rated poorly. It leads it to be one of those albums that the average rating doesn’t really work on too well. 

The most well-known song is Pride, but the best song is Bad. I absolutely love Bad, especially live, I will tell you that it just barely missed the cut for getting a rating of ten out of ten. It is a song that draws you in, gets into your soul in a way. There are in fact other songs on the album that do that too - the title track and Promenade especially so. Just like the album, it took me a while to warm up to the title song, and as so often has happened, it took a live version of the song to get me really into it. Maybe that’s why I didn’t like this album initially, because I didn’t have live experiences of it, and the songs that I rated poorly were also ones I haven’t heard live much and the band hasn’t played live much, if at all.

So to the question of what the album is about. The phrase The Unforgettable Fire refers to the detonation of a nuclear bomb, if I remember correctly they took it from a Japanese art or history project on World War Two. But that is not very thematic, and neither is most of the album. You have something like Pride and MLK, which both talk about Martin Luther King, then you have Bad which is about drugs, The Unforgettable Fire which could be nuclear war, and so on. Nothing specifically sticking together in that lot.

The thing about The Unforgettable Fire that keeps coming back to me though is the idea that it is something very cinematic in a way. More than a decade later U2 would get back together with Eno and make the Passengers album, which was designed as a set of theme songs for movies. If I were to describe The Unforgettable Fire I would describe it in that same way, like they created the idea with this album and used it, then it was a decade later the idea came back to them. For many if not most of these songs it is very possible to close your eyes, listen to the music - and sometimes the words - and feel images running through your mind brought on by it. It usually leads to something very calming, and the feeling that you could be watching the end credits of a movie with the soundtrack running over the top. For most of it, it really does work that way, and perhaps that’s the theme that is missing from the album when you listen to it intentionally.

I can’t help feeling that this is a really good album that just misses a mark, that it should grab me much more than it does. But then there are times, like in the paragraph above, where it grabs me and won’t let go, and it’s those times that I want to get into it. Like the songs themselves, the album as a whole has a split personality, that if I’m in the mood it is fantastic, but if not then I just want to get it done with.

My rating for The Unforgettable Fire: 5.5 / 10

War

War is U2’s third album, and it takes quite a different direction from the previous two. Boy was very much the band finding their feet, October was about their religion, and War, by the title, tells you what it was about. It was harder rock, much louder sounding, much more confident music from the band. Many people think of War as being the album that caused their career to take off, and in many ways it is. Oddly enough, although comfortably ahead of October in my ratings, I don’t rate it as highly as Boy. In fairness, the peak is higher, but the tail is longer.

War took on the themes of the day, the early 80s when the world seemed to be on fire and heading toward nuclear war. I was in my early teens at the time, and much of it passed me by. If I were to look back now I would call myself naive, little aware of the major stories of the day. It wasn’t until a few years later that I really got politically involved, and that was probably largely due to listening to The Joshua Tree, then switching back and herding these earlier songs. Stuff like War and The Unforgettable Fire were really triggers for me to follow through and find out what was going on in the world.

Now that I look back it does seem like that year, 1982, was probably the closest point to being the trigger of a global conflict. Britain was at war with Argentina in the Falklands, which I do remember, because I remember it as being a televised war and to my eternal shame I will admit that I had a kid’s excitement at seeing the action and reading the news. I remember collecting the set of magazines that documented the war. I suppose you could say I was seeing the glory of the revolution.

As I said, the peak of this album is very high. Sunday Bloody Sunday is an all-time classic song, one of the greatest songs ever written, not just by U2 but by anyone. You add in New Year’s Day and you’ve got a great one-two punch. But after that you start to slip, going down to 40, which fell among the U2 crowd favorites, and then further down to another set of songs that fill out the album but don’t last too well. Of the ten songs on the album, I have three rated as threes and two rated as twos, and you’re not going to end up with a classic album with ratings like that. This is fairly typical of the early U2, all of the albums before The Joshua Tree (and several after) tend to have a few songs that seem to have been worked on hard, and end up sounding great, but then you also tend to get some songs that sound like they were knocked together in an afternoon in the studio, and end up becoming album songs by default. Although having said that, if you’ve listened to some of the deluxe versions of the albums, you’ll have heard some of the songs that were left off the album, and realize that what made it wasn’t too bad after all. 

Perhaps the best thing War did - apart from being a U2 album - was to bring the band back together. There are all kinds of stories about how they were on the verge of breaking up around October, but they pulled together to get that album out and then kept going and did War. By that time they were touring a lot, and figuring out how they worked, and how they liked each other, and then things began rolling. They got a lot of notice during War, enough to push them ahead into Under A Blood Red Sky and The Unforgettable Fire. And by then they were starting to become an unstoppable force.

My rating for War: 4.7 / 10

October

This album is why I didn’t do these reviews in chronological order, because I thought that if people were reading reviews of October for a few weeks they would never come back again. For those of you who haven’t heard the sports term sophomore slump, it refers to a player who had a great first season but doesn’t play as well in their second. Normally you talk about regression to the mean, where by definition someone who’s had a really good first year isn’t likely to hit those heights again in their second. Doesn’t mean they got worse, just means they started really well. In sports there are many players who go on to great careers who have suffered through a sophomore slump.

October is definitely U2’s sophomore slump, and I may not be breaking any surprises to tell you that it is by far U2’s worst album. In my ratings October is a full point worse than the second worst album (in my view), and to tell you how much that actually means, if you take the second worst album (no spoilers) and add a point to it, you’re going to cover six other U2 albums. So being a point below is really significant.

Nothing out of October has stood the test of time. Scarlet got a bunch of airplay during 360, but solely thanks to Aung San Suu Kyi, and ironically it got confused a lot with Rejoice, because of the lyrics. Gloria got a lot of playtime on the Vertigo tour, not sure why, but none of the rest of the songs have been played since the 80s. And simply put, they don’t stand up well. They are fairly generic rock songs and most of their sound is from that era. I was in fact quite impressed with Songs Of Innocence, because the goal of that album was to sound like the early 80s and they succeeded so well that I thought several of those songs could have fit on October, and made it a better sounding album.

So are there any redeeming features to this album? Well, I Threw A Brick Through A Window sounds like The Fly at times, so you could argue that there’s some inspiration happening there. Gloria is decent, although like I said it doesn’t get much time these days. No, perhaps the best thing that came out of October is the video for Gloria (on a barge in the middle of nowhere), and the photos of the band in both the album and elsewhere, which serve as one of the defining images of the band in the early 80s. Much more so than Boy, those photos are what people look at and think of when they think of young U2. Especially the ones where they’re out at the dock, standing around looking moodily at the world, you see those photos repeated any time someone is writing about early U2. Edge and Larry trying to look cool, Adam with his bizarre white fluff of hair, and Bono who by now has perfected the art of standing sideways and staring off in a different direction to the rest of the band. Okay, so I guess Bono’s sideways stare is one thing that has stood the test of time.

I haven’t touched on religion yet, this album is one of the more religious ones, and came at a time when three quarters of the band were leaning heavily into religion. There are clear influences, obvious things like Rejoice and Gloria, and numerous other references throughout. They tend to neither improve or detract from the album in any way, it can pretty much stand on its own without them. If I were to say it’s a bad album because of the religion I’d be totally wrong.

Overall I don’t tend to listen to October much. If it comes on I will just as likely listen as skip a song, unless it’s a live one. There’s no shame in being U2’s worst album, as I said in my discussion of ratings, the worst U2 song is still better than most anything that anyone else has ever produced. Although thinking about that there are a number of albums I have by other bands that I would listen to before I listened to October much.

My rating for October: 3.5

Boy

U2’s first album sounds like a first album: some good, some bad, but a lot of promise. They definitely sound raw at times, you can hear a difference between Boy and even just a few years later, that they grew up a lot and quickly. This is exactly how most first albums sound, the people who get to make a second album make a good enough record to get to a second.

There are two ways to look at Boy, as it was when it was released in 1980, and as it sounds now. Both ways are entirely valid, you should put it into the context of the time it came out, but also how well it has aged. For the sound from 1980, it sounds pretty good. You can say now that it stood out quite a lot compared to other bands, because U2 took off as they did. Does that mean this album defines a new beginning for music, getting away from the 70s style? In a way yes, but then when they tell you that they came out of the punk style, I can’t necessarily agree. I think it is a little more public-facing than punk, more commercial radio acceptable, which is probably something that U2 would be unhappy to hear.

As for the modern day, it has largely aged well. My overall ratings will give it a couple of really strong songs, one or two poor, but mostly average compared to the rest of their library. I think that’s a good thing, you wouldn’t want them to have peaked with the first release. On the other hand, you might want them to get better every time, but I don’t think that’s possible. Like I mentioned previously, listening to it now I hear the unpolished sound that they had then, and the voice of Bono is very unpracticed at times. There are a couple of songs where the drums dominate, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, and here and there the music doesn’t sound right. I’ve also already talked about An Cat Dubh and the trouble it had with the segue into Into The Heart.

To answer the question you will have without going through the entire year, the couple of songs that have lasted the test of time are Out Of Control and I Will Follow. Most of the rest show some kind of promise, although often sounding incomplete like they needed a little more baking or a little more experience. The weakest song on the album is The Ocean, which is just terrible. Most of the songs do have a beat or a feeling that can grab you, and do make me think of them every so often (every time I heard the word “electric” my mind plays the line “if you don’t know, Electric Co.”).

I don’t listen to Boy very often. It’s in my playlist, but I find myself skipping over many of the songs on a regular basis. It’s a good album, fun here and there, but I do get a mildly bland feeling from it every so often. The mood it puts me in is usually… meh. Now, I do have the live version of Out Of Control from U22 on my phone, and I have been known to play that one song over and over again. It was really good when it was released and it’s really good now. I have also played I Will Follow on the guitar regularly, it’s an easy song to get into and play, at least compared to many of their others. I can’t say I play it well, but I can say I enjoy trying it.

I want to point out that my ratings for albums will differ slightly from the rest of the ratings. I decided to make the album the average of all the songs on it, so it will not be a whole number. And as I go through the songs, I have been changing some of the original ratings I made, adding a point here or there as I think about them more. The album rating is based on the original rating though - for the simple reason that I may not be doing the last of an album’s songs until the end of the year, when I rated the album a long time before, and I don’t want to go back and update those numbers. Oh, and I’m going to do the albums in order, rather than randomly.

My rating for Boy: 5.2 / 10