Sunday, October 2, 2011

So REM broke up eh? Any thoughts U2...

So the REM break up has being playing on my mind for a few days now and it's mainly been about when bands should break up as opposed to whether they do. It maybe heretical to many but I was mainly thinking about U2 - huge band, huge pulling power and can sell out arenas anywhere in the world. But what was the last U2 album I really enjoyed from front to back? Achtung Baby which is celebrating it's 20th anniversary this year.

When I think back, Zooropa was spotty (although it has some great songs towards the end of the record and Stay [So far, so close] is one of their best of that decade) and then there was Pop. As I was thinking about this on a train trip two days ago, I decided to listen to Pop in its entirety for the first time in a gazillion years. I couldn't do it - once I hit Mofo and started to wonder who advised the boys to add all those Chemical Brothers flourishes, they had lost me. Maybe they thought it was some Achtung-esque reinvention but maybe there was no thought at all or too much thought... Who knows? There's some good songs there but it is a hard listen.

I then listened to All that you can't leave behind which sounds like a U2 tribute band aping their greatest hits. There's some good songs there but the back end is pretty poor. From then on, it seems that U2 forgot how to write a memorable chorus on Atomic Bomb and No Line on the Horizon. To be honest, Atomic Bomb features what I consider the worst U2 line ever (which is apparently one of Bono's favourites):

Freedom has a scent like the top of a newborn baby's head

Uhmmm... no. REM had a much noticeable decline in both popularity and quality but while U2 remain huge, I'd argue the quality control has been lacking. Obviously, there is the will in the band to continue although Larry always looks grumpy but should I expect a band like this to be producing good albums at this stage of their career? I'd argue that Fugazi's last record was one of their best some 20 years into their existence and you know, that last Metallica album was pretty good.

Maybe this is a product of being in a behemoth band. I went to see Metallica last year and had a blast. I later saw the live video from the same tour (Fran├žais Pour Une Nuit) and it was pretty much, move for move, the same concert I saw in Brisbane except for a slightly altered setlist. I know a production of that size or the U2 360 show needs to have a certain regularity to be manageable and the fans want to hear the hits so I get that. I saw U2 on the Zoo TV tour and it was pretty much the same as a live broadcast I'd seen on TV. I wonder does this size and routine make the bands over think everything from the live show to their recording? Achtung Baby is such a primal howl of a record - a record of turmoil, inventiveness and raw power. No line on the horizon seemed like it was micromanaged and produced in a test tube by scientists.

Now, to be honest, I'm not advocating for U2 to split up. I mean the Rolling Stones keep on keeping on and no one expects them to release a really great album at this stage. I guess the thing is with REM, they knew the jig was up but with U2 I always have this glimmering hope that they will produce one more really great record. It's a terrible expectation and probably an impossible one but that's partly because I am a fan. There may never be another Joshua Tree or Achtung in them but we can hope. I'm being a little unfair here, I could say this about any band who have been around for a while, I mean you could say the same thing about the Cure or the Beastie Boys or Aerosmith or Radiohead (WHAT! WAIT! NEVER!). Actually, you could say it about some newer bands too, I mean Coldplay haven't done anything interesting since their second album apart from wear stupid jackets (if they ever did anything interesting at all). But whatever, I'm just tossing some seeds around here. Thoughts?



  1. This reminds me of the drummer theory of band longevity. Lose the original drummer? The band is over. And with Bill Berry's departure, it was inevitable.

    The Stones, U2, even Radiohead will power on because secretly, the rhythm engine is where it's at. There mightn't be any great records any more (cough, Stones) but there will be greatest hits tours after tour.

    And with U2, only some major cataclysm or event or storm will ever make them push barriers in a really simple and profound way again - the hunger just isn't there - the reactive need. Even with all the power and cash, and all those profoundly MILD songs The Bono keeps writing, there has to be a will to either experiment or improvise, and frankly, they and their manager don't won't to alienate fans any more when just staying relevant is the bigger issue. And the Boner knows this, and Edge knows it, and Larry knows it but very grudgingly, and Adam, well he's just enjoying the easy ride on bass. Bless him.

    If they dabbled in interesting side projects, or collaborated, or produced other bands, or just did something beyond the same, the same, the same (but with a bigger set this time), then this would all balance out better - in terms of their own product too. All the great artists I can think of are/were great collaborators. Prince giving songs away and producing half a dozen projects. Jonny Greenwood scoring odd soundtracks. Jack White doing country. Brian Wilson giving away California Dreaming. U2 just need to stop doing U2 for a while, because that's all they seem to know to do. They've lost all sense of potential.

    Again, this could all be inevitable for bands of a certain age. But they've gotta get tired of it eventually. Do it for Larry.

  2. I'm a big U2 fan. I even thought that Atomic Bomb was a good record. However, I think they should hang it up, at least for awhile. They're doing Spiderman musicals, now. They're meeting foreign ministers, and buying real estate. In other words, they've become a corporate concern, not a band, so I don't think they could necessarily "break up" even if they wanted to. What would the shareholders say? But, a really long hiatus? Wherein, they could pursue other interests? Maybe develop other interests? Hell, even just write their memoirs, in the John Malkovich in Burn after Reading kinda way. Regardless, they're not a compelling band, in a band kind of way. Same thing as REM- Stipe's developed into a better visual artist, Buck's great again in the Baseball project, etc, etc, etc....

  3. Well, I've been thinking about what you guys have written and even if there's no way for them to split up, would the world be ready for a Bono oe Edge solo album? I think I'd be far more interested in the Edge one than Bono's where he'd probably sing about Desmond Tutu or something. The other thing is, they have kind of relied on Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois or Steve Lillywhite as their primary producers forver. How would a Nigel Godrich or Steve Albini U2 record sound? Maybe it's that safe environment in the studio that is creating such inertia - who knows? Probably not Bono that's for sure...