“We’re going away to dream it all up again,” Bono declared. Speaking at U2’s last concert of the 1980s the band’s lead singer was not just responding to the critical backlash that had greeted their latest album, ‘Rattle and Hum’. He had unwittingly set the tone for the group’s output of the next ten years.
A difficult decade for the Irish foursome, documented here on their second ‘Best Of’ compilation, the 1990s were marked by musical experimentation as the band continually sought to find a new voice.
The strongest of these voices emerged on their first release of the decade, 1991’s ‘Achtung Baby’. Two energetic songs from the dark and gritty offering kick off this compilation: the driving rock of ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’ and hypnotic groove of ‘Mysterious Ways’. Also represented is the anthemic ‘One’, contrasted by ‘Until the End of the World’ — an aggressive sonic assault led by The Edge’s screaming guitar.
The instrument was more subdued on U2’s follow-up record, ‘Zooropa’, which found the band adding technological effects, drum loops and samples to its sound, as showcased on the instantly recognisable ‘Numb’. Yet, while the track remains bizarrely compelling and unlike anything else the band has produced, it sounds dated — even when presented here in remixed form.
The same fate does not befall the moody ‘Stay’ or the most surprising inclusion on this “Best Of” album: ‘The First Time’. As the most low-key song on ‘Zooropa’ it was somewhat lost amongst all the experimentation, but nevertheless remains a beautiful track.
Its simple piano and harmonium instrumentation reveal the strong influence of Brian Eno who, two years later, teamed up with the band to form The Passengers. A side project that focused on ambient instrumentals, it also resulted in some unlikely collaborations — the most inspired of which was Luciano Pavarotti’s sensitive performance on the haunting ‘Miss Sarajevo’.
However, with opinions in the band divided over the project’s success, the next U2 single found the group trying on a 70s glam rock sound for size. The result was the solid crunch of ‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’ which combined a monster guitar riff with a lush string arrangement to create the only good aspect of the 1996 film ‘Batman Forever’.
Yet, despite the resulting chart success, the band changed tack yet again and began collaborating with dance producer Howie B. Although the subsequent album, ‘Pop’, was a patchy affair that focused more on image than music, three songs have made it onto this compilation: ‘Discotheque’, ‘Staring at the Sun’ and ‘Gone’. Tellingly, each has been given revisionist tweaks that strip back the rhythmic dance elements in favour of a more traditional drum, guitar and bass sound. None of the remixes is particularly successful though and only manage to make the songs sound more tired and laboured.
Thankfully the same is not true of the uplifting ‘Beautiful Day’ and gospel tinged ‘Stuck in a Moment’ — the two tracks drawn from 2000’s ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’. Their strongest, most consistent album in nine years, it was the result of a back to basics approach that threw out the wild experimentation in favour of good songs and a more organic sound.
Continuing in this vein are the two excellent new tracks that round off this compilation. ‘Electrical Storm’ is a claustrophobic love song that skilfully blends the fluid, ambient stylings of producer William Orbit with the trademark U2 sound: marching band drumming, chunky guitar riffs and emotive vocals. Even better is ‘The Hands That Built America’ — an epic track that builds, and expands, on the template of ‘One’. Starting off with Orbit’s dreamy keyboards it slowly grows from a stripped back acoustic guitar and piano accompaniment to include the full band, a string orchestra and an impressive tenor vocal.
Even more impressive though is that these new tracks sound fresh and vital, the product of a band that has once again found its voice and is entering its third decade with self assured vigour.
- This article originally appeared on iafrica.com.