Thursday, October 8, 2009

Better as a Single: "Rattle and Hum" by U2

This is the album that almost killed U2. In short, they recorded an album called The Joshua Tree that did rather well. Once it had been canonised by critics, U2 found themselves with a few ideas: Let's go on tour in the States. Let's film that tour. Let's record some songs in tribute to American musicians of the past. Let's takes these incongruous ideas and throw them together into a big-screen production mess of live performances, studio noodling and whatever-else, with an accompanying double-album.

Rattle and Hum is a textbook case in the failings of the double album: the expanded pallette so often does not allow for a fuller realisation of potential so much as a dramatic overshooting of the target, to the point that the single album of worthwhile material is so buried by the unneccesary filler that the whole project turns out looking overblown. And in this case it's such a pity.

After the big album, U2 could have recorded an intentionally small-scale album and let it find its own audience. It would have subverted the need to follow up an epic with something even more epic, and avoid the risk of failing at that ambition. It would have kept them in the public's eye but not in a white-hot, due-for-a-backlash fashion. It would have made them, dare I say, 'established artists'.

And the thing is that they did record that album: that's the album I'm presenting to you today, a quiet, unassuming studio album undiluted by histrionic overblown live performances of such stunning pretention that it leaves you shaking your head. All hum, no rattle. It would have been great...

So this is a bit of a trick this time out. It's not that I'm taking the best songs. It's that I'm taking the studio recordings, the single-album's-worth that exist here, and dumping the live tracks. With few exceptions this turns out to be the same thing (most of the live recordings are dreadful) and not only does it give the album much more focus but it also gives it a more realistic scope. If they had put this out instead of the double-album-movie-monstrosity, pergaps the backlash would never have happened.

Of course, then we'd never have Achtung Baby. Well, you take the good, you take the bad, I guess.

Rattle and Hum

Side one

  1. Van Diemen's Land (3:05)
  2. Desire (2:59)
  3. When Love Comes to Town (4:15)
  4. Hawkmoon 269 (6:22)
  5. God Part II (3:15)

Side two

  1. Angel of Harlem (3:49)
  2. Love Rescue Me (6:24)
  3. Heartland (5:03)
  4. All I Want is You (6:30)

Helter Skelter: lose

I think it's a terrible song in the Beatles' version and just as terrible here. Shrill where it hopes to be heavy, it's the ultimate blowhard's-exercise. It has absolutely nothing to say (as much as Charles Manson once hoped differently) and U2 attempting to 'steal it back' from Manson by performing it in concert is completely ridiculous. As an album-opener it is every bit as pretentious as U2 and the album as a whole were seen as being.

Van Diemen's Land: keep (side one, track one)

About as understated a song as you could imagine, it sounds very much like a demo. The Edge's halting vocals are actually a highlight, as it gives the whole recording a fragile quality that suits it. A perennial 'album track', I'm sure there were no plans to ever put this out as a single. But it is enjoyable in its own way, and understated: the very thing that Rattle and Hum is when it's at its best and isn't when it's at its worst.

There's a perversity to the way the double starts off with 'Helter Skelter', 'Van Diemen's Land' and 'Desire' that I like. I think that 'Desire' is such an obvious album-starter and 'Van Diemen's Land' is so obviously not one that switching their 'natural' order around has a perverse logic to it. Starting the album with such a slow burning sigh of a song strikes me as bizarre but worthwhile.

Desire: keep (side one, track two)

Bo Diddley beat, clanging guitars, not much of a melody, less than three minutes: a big hit. It would be pretty perverse not to include this song, the best-known on the album, but it feels a little bit huff-and-puff to me too, like "Helter Skelter". It's not as 'big' as it hopes to be, not as powerful as it hopes to be, not as sexy as it hopes to be. But it's not bad either.

I wouldn't mind if you got rid of the crap interview bit between these two songs. But going BANG-BANG-BANG after 'Van Diemen's Land' is, in my opinion, a good idea that bears repeating.

Hawkmoon 269: keep (side one, track four)

With a title like that, U2 prove that they can make any old thing pretentious. Still, this is kind of the keynote piece on what might have been the understated Joshua Tree follow-up. It's another drone piece, with lyrics that don't mean much but are well sung by Bono (he gets grunty but not intolerably so). Back-up singers show up out of the blue to give the song a bit more 'resonance'. It's not bad at all, not overly memorable, but a nice sounding thing. And that says a lot on Rattle and Hum.

The ideal location for this song is 'far away from "Love Rescue Me"'. Too similar to be back-to-back, they sit in similar positions on each side. I think the penultimate track on side one is a good place to house longer, exploratory songs that don't belong on side two, so that's what I've done here.

All Along the Watchtower: lose

"This song Jimi Hendrix stole from Bob Dylan, and we're stealing it back..." Interesting inclusion in their attempt to nick from all of the greats of American rock music history in that both Hendrix and Dylan appear on this album already. Can you say 'superfluous'? I certainly can. Nevertheless, it's a competent reading that doesn't particularly embarrass anyone (and might merit inclusion on my single-disc if it weren't a live recording)... until... no, Bono, don't do it... "All I've got is a red guitar, three chords and the truth." What the hell is that? How ugly, how obnoxious, how insulting to Hendrix, Dylan and the whole audience. Why does Bono keep declaiming things like this? Why doesn't he know when to shut up?

I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For: lose

By far the best live track on the soundtrack, perhaps because it's the one with the least U2 involvement? "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" is one of those Joshua Tree songs that rides the balance between heartfelt and pretentious quite well. Bono sure does love his Jesus, and for better or for worse this is a gospel song, so giving it a full gospel treatment makes sense. It's performed very well, it's a completely credible revision, and it's authentic so avoids much of the pretention that's so endemic elsewhere. This is a better performance than much of what I've included. But I'm making a studio album, and this is a live track. A live version of a song that just appeared on their last album, mind you.

Freedom for My People: lose

Yay! A busker! That's exactly what I just paid $20 to hear!

Silver and Gold: lose

To be honest, I don't know how U2 could have failed to see the extent to which this crosses a line of good taste. It's very strange: the movie catches U2 performing "Sunday Bloody Sunday" the day after the Remembrance Day massacre, and the intensity of that performance and the very rightness of Bono's spoken mid-song rant do everything to remind you that politics do have a place in rock and that U2 are capable of making 'righteous' listenable. Yet that performance doesn't show up on the soundtrack, and instead we get this pompous, stick-up-the-ass blowhard babble. "Am I bugging you?" he beggars belief by asking. Yes, you sure as hell are. And you are destroying one of your best solo compositions in the process. "I don't mean to bug you" he says, presumably in jest or irony or something. Because if you don't mean to bug us, then don't.

Pride (in the Name of Love): lose

Faithful to the original. So it doesn't make me want to gouge Bono's eyes out, but it has no real reason to exist either. Just filler, and the fourth of four straight live performances too. For a mixed live/studio creation, the mix is hardly homogeneous. There still seem to be some lumps left.

Angel of Harlem: keep (side two, track one)

Finally, 10 tracks in, proof that U2 can be a great band if they want to. Vindication. etc. Almost 'worth the price of admission', this beautiful tribute to Billie Holliday is on a very short list of my favourite U2 songs. They get a few things right here that they get so spectacularly wrong throughout Rattle and Hum: to start with, this is a proper tribute: a recording meant to glorify its subject, not to glorify U2 by association with its subject. It doesn't attempt to greatness itself (and so comes close to achieving it), and it actually allows for a bit of joy. And lightness. And an un-self-conscious sexiness. Plus horns. Which never hurt. All told, a great success. The highlight of the album.

I've always thought that one of the best places to put a mini-anthem, if not the opening track of side one, is the opening track of side two. It reinvigorates the album, gets the 'second act' starting after the intermission, and establishes what is usually a twenty-minute diminuendo. 'Angel of Harlem' fits the bill well. Of course, if you're not talking foot-long slabs of vinyl, the point is moot.

Love Rescue Me: keep (side two, track two)

Bob Dylan is a man of such presence that any song he contributes to becomes undeniably his own, and he shows up U2 here as the pretenders they really are... except really. Bob Dylan both co-wrote and performed on this song, apparently, but I can't hear him anywhere at all. In any case it's another of those slow-burning ones like "Hawkmoon"... way too tasteful to have anything bad to say about but also just too darn tasteful for their own good as well. It's a pretty enough song. It lasts six and a half minutes and then it goes away.

I'm not a big fan of my side two - a sustained series of samey mid-tempo songs is not the greatest of ideas, but neither is randomly mixing them amidst the uptempo songs either. Call it a 'suite'. Yeah, that's the ticket. Anyway, it carries the brass from 'Angel of Harlem' onward.

When Love Comes to Town: keep (side one, track three)

Ah, electric blues. My favourite... I guess I just need to be a different person than I am to appreciate songs like this. All I can say is that it seems like a successful enough genre exercise. U2 don't embarrass themselves or anything. BB King does what, as far as I can tell, is the only thing BB King has ever done his whole life, and does it as well as he ever does. But it does not move me. And yet it was a 7" single. Hmm.

For those who find it a fingerpoppin' 'barnstormer', it makes sense not to bury this song too deep. So I let it follow up 'Desire's burst of energy. If I could get enthusiastic about this song, I'd say that's the perfect place for it.

Heartland: keep (side two, track three)

You have to wonder why a band decides that a song is not good enough for one album but suddenly is good enough for the next one. Can an 'outtake from the previous album' be anything but filler? It's certainly intriguing to hear the very distinctive Joshua Tree sound crop up out of the blue on a different album. It's a good song, but ultimately it's just so very U2-by-numbers. They could have written 10,000 songs exactly like this, and probably kept selling records. I guess it's a tribute to them that they didn't, but all in all "Heartland" is one of those many songs on this album that, upon close listening, are not bad but en masse contribute to the ultimatel feeling that this album is just overlong, overstuffed and boring.

Yes, it beats a dead horse putting this between 'Love Rescue Me' and 'All I Want is You'. In my defense, though, I can say that the tangibly different era 'feel' of this track does break up the monotony a little. Plus, what's the second-last track position of an album for if not your weakest track?

God Part II: keep (side one, track five)

By now what gets the press about "God Part II" is its sound, how it's meant in some way to be a prequel to Achtung Baby. I don't buy that, but it is sonically an interesting track. In fact it should have been an instrumental: the lyrics do little more than crib John Lennon and Bruce Cockburn to no real end. And Bono gets annoying-screechy as opposed to emotional-screechy. It's a song that never convinces you it has any real reason to exist. But it sure does sound good.

'Striking' enough to lead to side one's inner grooves, it also sounds good after 'Hawkmoon's kinda overwrought conclusion. In the post-vinyl era, we can call it a bridge between the meandering 'Hawkmoon' and the tight 'Angel of Harlem'. Everyone's a winner.

The Star Spangled Banner: lose

"Edge, Larry, how can critics call this a pretentious album? Honestly, what's pretentious about including 40 seconds of Jimi Hendrix doing the American national anthem at Woodstock on our album as a lead-in to a live performance of one of our songs? Honestly."

Bullet the Blue Sky: lose

A live performance that entirely succeeds in transforming the original's mood and feeling into a stadium setting. Whatever "Bullet the Blue Sky" is on The Joshua Tree it is here too, just louder and longer. Oh, did I mention that it's my least favourite song on The Joshua Tree? An annoying song at the best of time, it really is faithfully performed here. And if a song has Bono-preaching included in its studio version, obviously live performances will take that particular ball and run with it... into the arms... of Americah...

All I Want is You: keep (side two, track four)

Aren't strings lovely things? Isn't U2-by-numbers still a wonderful thing when it's done properly? Why does it take 17 songs for U2 to realise this? The Edge is as U2 as he's ever been. Bono certainly grunts in classic U2-style. It could be overblown like "Bullet the Blue Sky" or inconsequential like "Heartland". But for a band that constantly is aiming for majesty but so rarely achieving it, here's one time where they truly are majestic. The strings definitely help, but I think it's just commitment. Hell, I don't know what it is. I don't know why U2 can be so great or so horrible and have no idea which is which. All I know is it leaves it to us to filter through. Which is really the only way to appreciate U2. This gorgeous song, at 6:30 not a second too long, leaves this bloated double-album on a high note - and convinces you that the hour plus that preceded it truly wasn't primarily filler. Oh, and the video? Love, suicide and dignity in the circus? U4 doing nothing more than waking on a beach? Majestic. And gorgeous. And everything that the Rattle and Hum 'rockumentary' wasn't.

Obviously this song, with its lengthy conclusion, is ridiculous as anything other than a set-closer. U2 themselves saw it, I saw it back in the day maing mixtapes for friends, and you and I see it together now. Into the good night go U2, strings a-playin'.

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