Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Review: Vinyl Reissues of Three U2 Albums

OK, so in 1987, U2 completed the transition from being a particularly successful college rock band that had not yet cracked the top ten of Billboard’s album charts to the biggest band in the world. The Joshua Tree went to number one in almost every major market in the world, U2 filled stadiums and dominated MTV, Bono became Rock’s hunky conscience, and so on and so on. Yet the edge of a band once edgy enough to deserve a member called The Edge had gone a bit blunt. The punky energy that made Boy and War so invigorating was softening into a sound more befitting top-forty radio, and by the time U2 released the bluesy, snoozy soundtrack for their major motion picture Rattle & Hum in 1988, they were as edgy as a beach ball. Yet they still sold millions of albums, so it is to U2’s credit that they then started fucking with their tried and true formula at the height of their popularity.

U2 wasn’t the first minister to marry Rock & Roll and club-based dance music (that kind of thing had already been happening in the Madchester scene for a few years), but they were certainly the biggest. So new recordings such as “Mysterious Ways” and “Even Better Than the Real Thing” sounded fairly radical when they commandeered the airwaves in 1991. Digging deeper into Achtung Baby, there were somewhat more out-there things such as the sensual “The Fly”, the surging “Acrobat”, and the pounding “Zoo Station”, all of which hinted at what U2 could really do when they let their imaginations go wild.

And that’s just what they did with their next album. Zooropa is divisive not only because Bono’s new yen for adopting obnoxious, ironic personas wore out some less-committed fans but also because the music is so weird. The thing is, U2 could do weird very, very well. If “Mysterious Ways” was a bit of a refreshing change after the tedium of “Angel of Harlem”, then “Numb” was a revivifying plunge in an icy stream, taking everything we came to know about U2—including Bono’s bombastic pipes—and wiping them away. That’s the most revolutionary cut on Zooropa, but the title track, the hilariously discofied “Lemon”, the trashy smash “Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car”, and “The Wanderer”—starring guest vocalist Johnny Cash and guest instrument a twenty-dollar Casio keyboard—are just as far out. Bono’s withering perspective of contemporary life went down more pleasantly with a less hectoring tone and more humor. The only slight misstep is “Stay (Far Away So Close)”, but only because it doesn’t try to rise to the rest of the album’s level of experimentalism. 

Zooropa is one of the shiniest and most underappreciated gems in U2’s back catalogue, but it isnt for everyone, and those who prefer Larry Mullen, Jr., without the drum machine accompaniment could take solace in The Best of 1980-1990, which gathers up choice tracks from U2’s pre-experimental career. Much of what made the comp is unimpeachable—“New Year’s Day”, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “Bad”, “I Will Follow”, “The Unforgettable Fire”—and the Joshua Tree hits sound fresher when cut in among the more vital classics, but there is an over-reliance on Rattle and Hum that blunts the history. Because most of those songs were huge hits, they had to be included, but it would have been nice if some room had been made for minor singles such as “Two Hearts Beat As One”, “Gloria”, and “A Day without Me” to provide a more complete portrait of the early years— and because they’re great tracks.

Yet there are a few slight oddities to mix up the familiarity, most notably a good rerecording of the B-side “Sweetest Thing” (which actually ended up becoming a sizable hit in most of the world) and alternate edits of “New Year’s Day”, “Where the Streets Have No Name”, and “Bad”. The CD also included a hidden track and token obscurity— the title number and only representative of U2’s second album— though “October” is not much of a song.

Nevertheless, while you wouldn’t want to be without Boy or War, The Best of 1980-1990 still presents an adequate picture of U2’s first decade, and Achtung Baby and Zooropa certainly constitute the best of what came next, so these three albums are a pretty good trio to put forth together in a wave of vinyl reissues from Universal Music. Zooropa includes two bonus tracks—long, clubby, nearly unrecognizable remixes of “Lemon” and “Numb”—and The Best includes a bonus track from its Japanese edition, the relatively obscure Joshua Tree track “One Tree Hill”, which was released as a single in Australia and New Zealand. Each album arrives on double, 180-gram vinyl, and each is remastered with a reduction of the CDs’ brightness. 
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