I look on this album as a turning point, both in the way I listened to music, and in everything else in my life. We had owned a CD player for a couple of years by the time I bought this, but the various changes and challenges in life meant that the collection was a little thin. By the time I picked this up everything had changed and – possibly for the first time in my life – I was able to hear music the way it had been intended to be heard.
The part of my life where I drove madly around Scotland pretending to be any good at selling things came to an end in the summer of 1990, when I was recruited into an office job – Sales Operations, we called it – and had to figure out how to afford life in the south of England.
There was a certain amount of culture shock being so close to London and having to figure out the slightly different way many things seemed to work at the time; in the first few days, we encountered a giant grocery store which didn’t accept credit cards (yes, really), and discovered that while you could buy alcohol on a Sunday, pretty much everything else was closed.
We quickly figured out that on one salary, we wouldn’t be living particularly close to where I worked, and after a couple of weeks in a hotel and a few months in a poky flat overlooking Chorleywood underground station, we found a house we felt sure we could just about afford.
Our little house in Tring was about half the size of the flat in Perth, and cost almost exactly twice as much. It wasn’t exactly spacious, but we made it work, and in the end spent the first half of the 1990s making it work. I figured out just what it was I did want to do with my career, Zoë slowly recovered and got herself fit enough to work, and I started buying music on CD.
I mean, I did other things, too, and I still belonged to a library with a record collection which I could tape things from, but more often than not, I would find myself buying CDs and marvelling at the clarity and crispness of the sound.
At least, that’s what I told myself. How much of the difference was down to the digital format, and how much was down to the fact that I wasn’t listening to it either on a cheap plastic record player, or in a noisy vehicle via a second-generation tape isn’t entirely clear. I certainly thought I was hearing music as it was supposed to be heard, but in my dotage, I have come to doubt whether CDs were always as wonderful as we thought they were, just as I often prefer nowadays to listen to older records on vinyl than in digital format.
The truth is, of course, that nothing can exactly replicate the sound of being there, so how you hear something comes down to personal preference. I suspect that electronic and digitally-created music works better in a digital format, while acoustic instruments respond much better to the warmth of the analogue sound, but what do I know?
In one other respect, CDs were essential to our situation in the early 1990s, in that they took up way less space. My carefully curated record collection, which had begun in my tiny bedroom in Aberdeen 20 years before, was now stuffed into boxes in the attic (from where I constantly worried it would emerge through the ceiling one night), as there was literally nowhere to put it in our little ‘starter home’.
I’m not entirely convinced I had any means of playing them either – I know the first CD-capable device we owned in Perth had a record deck, but memory suggests it was replaced by something much smaller in our new house; something which played CDs and tapes, but had no room for the giant slabs of vinyl.
One day, just before we would have had to move it again, the collection was sold. I like to think I mourned the loss of my precious albums (and I definitely do now), but I suspect at the time, I was all about embracing the future and listening to all my music on a much more portable format.
Talking of embracing the future, here was a U2 album which didn’t really sound like anything they had done before. U2 had, until this point, always been more Zoë’s thing than mine – I mean, I liked a lot of their music, but the U2 albums in our collection were hers, not mine. I remember being encouraged by someone while still at university to come and see this new Irish band people were raving about, but still being in my ‘noisy metal’ phase, and not bothering. Maybe I’d have seen them differently if I had gone along, but they were always just on the periphery of my interests.
I did buy Rattle and Hum, but I know I was buying it for us, not just me. It weas one of the first CDs we owned, and – I’m sure I’m not imagining this – those early CDs were thicker than the ones which came later. I remember the disc being quite substantial, and I remember poring over the whole package trying to figure out what was going on with it. I listened to it again a couple of years ago, and it’s quite a curiosity really; neither one thing nor the other, a sort of live album-cum-compilation-cum-half a new album, and I suspect that in the end all it did for the band was clarify that this wasn’t the direction they wanted to be going in.
I heard The Fly on the radio. I have a clear memory of being in a hotel room and hearing it for the first time, but I have no idea why my memory thinks I was in a hotel in Dundee, since I definitely can’t figure out why on earth I would have been there – I certainly did occasionally come up to Scotland for sales meetings at this time, but they were always in Edinburgh, and I’d fly up and back in the same day – I’ve been thinking about this all week, and can come to no other conclusion than that I’ve completely misremembered the whole thing.
Which kind of nudges this whole project a little closer to ‘fiction’, I think.
However it actually happened, I heard The Fly, and recognised that this was really interesting. There’s no doubt that mainstream music was changing and perhaps fragmenting a little around this time; I was certainly exploring lost of unfamiliar areas and reaching back into classical music, listening to albums I’d overlooked – I went through a Frank Sinatra phase for a time there – and as a result, was buying much less new music, a trend which definitely explains how we’re not yet halfway through my life so far, but have already sailed past the two-thirds point in the list.
One other significant change had happened in my life, of course – instead of listening to the radio on my own in the car all day, I now worked in an office with colleagues – many of them a similar age to me – and we talked about music in a way I hadn’t done since leaving university.
We recommended things to each other, and while we didn’t agree on much, I found a lot of things I wouldn’t otherwise have done just by being in an environment like that again. When the new U2 album came out, though, several of us bought it, and debated it keenly for weeks, unsure if it was iconic or just another passing phase. I decided I liked this smart, cynical way of looking at the world, and certainly preferred it to the earnestness of the earlier albums. I haven’t listened to it all the way through for many years, though, so I don’t know how that view will hold up.
It looked different to anything they’d done before, and starts with noises off and distortion, announcing itself as not what you were expecting. Zoo Station does flirt with the familiar U2 guitar tone briefly, but the heavily treated vocal throws us off the scent; it’s a driving, danceable beat, but a cryptic and strange lyric which seems to be looking at the unfamiliar European landscape which had suddenly emerged and scratching its head.
Even Better Than the Real Thing is on much more familiar ground; the open landscape of older U2 songs is present, as is Bono’s unique vocal tone. But there’s a hustle to it which is less U2, and the doubled vocal is strange, lending it a kind of eeriness which I’m not sure was the original intention, but which is striking to me listening to it closely now.
I would have sworn One was the final track on the album for some reason – not sure why, as it fits perfectly here, and I was anticipating it as the previous track faded out. Memory, eh?
Anyway, it’s the song I remember most strongly from the album (although it turns out I remember it all clearly so far); it’s the song I’d identify as carrying the spirit of what this whole project was about – reinventing the U2 sound without obscuring the fact that there are some impressive songwriters in the band. The lyric resonates and is of its time, the energy of the recording is clear, and it highlights something for me I hadn’t really thought about so far – this album sounds like it’s from the 1990s; there has been a shift away from the sometimes sterile eighties sound. In spite of its digital construction, the recording sounds warm, which I’m not sure I remembered.
Until the End of the World (you should watch the film, incidentally) is back in the mix of old and new – the familiar U2 tropes, including the religious imagery in the lyric, battle with the new feel and sound which envelop them without ever completely obscuring them. It skips along; a hummable song about betrayal.
From the first time I heard this album, Who’s Gonne Ride Your Wild Horses stood out for me, I think because of the soundscape which takes us all the way to the chorus before resolving into something recognisable – until that point, it’s a swirling echo of a thing, but gains focus as the bass asserts itself and the vocals take centre stage. I think I hear this in its layers now – some things which are buried in the mix occasionally pop out into focus, and make me think I’m hearing them for the first time. I don’t exactly know what appealed to me so much about it back then, but I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it closely this time – part of the appeal of music to me is the ability to hear it differently each time, and this delivers on that score.
So Cruel is stripped back as befits its pained lyric; it shuffles along without really ever finding its stride and leaves you slightly unsettled as you listen to it wrestle with its subject matter without resolving anything; the spirit of betrayal and loss weighs the song down but never brings it to its knees – it’s strangely defiant and uplifting in spite of itself.
The Fly, as already noted, sounds like nothing which had gone before it; I’m not sure I ever completely bought in to the whole alter ego thing Bono had going on, but it definitely fits this song, whatever it turns out to have been about. All the pieces which go into making up a U2 song are here, but are jumbled and distorted or hidden in the mix, and while it served its purpose at the time of alerting us to how different this was all going to sound, I think it is somewhat overshadowed in the full context of the album. It’s a bit lightweight and throwaway now, but maybe that was the point all along.
I love the fluid and relaxed feel to Mysterious Ways, the bass tone in particular leaps out and grabs the attention while the drumming propels what might otherwise be an ordinary melody into interesting and attention-grabbing places. It’s a lot of fun, this track, even after all this time.
Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World starts with a beat which is very early nineties; this kind of thing was just beginning to come to prominence, and it’s intriguing to hear it here, under a song which is pretty much all vocal, with only the faintest hint of the old U2 sound pushed back in the mix. The bass again carries a lot of the structure as Bono revisits some of the aphorisms which presumably didn’t fit into the already packed lyric of The Fly. I think they work better here, to be honest – it’s a better and more open song, and it’s curious to me that one of the highlights of the album from a songwriting point of view is somehow less regarded than the ones around it.
For example, Ultra Violet has three times as many listens on Spotify, but I’m struggling to find anything to say about it beyond it being a memorable melody. It’s otherwise much more like an old U2 song, with the insistent guitar line pulsing away without ever resolving to anything, until it crashes out into a slightly more raucous final third.
On the other hand, I still love Acrobat, partly for the way it co-opts that familiar U2 rumble and turns it into something altogether newer-sounding, and partly for the lyric which expresses much of the same anger and frustration as Lou Reed was grumbling a few weeks back. Unlike Uncle Lou, though, Acrobat manages to be hopeful and looks to the future with something like optimism. Alongside the optimism is a soundscape which feels less like a traditional U2 open sweep, and more like an angry anthem.
Again, memory fails me, as I was sure that was the final track, but of course it isn’t, because we leave with the church organ and genuine despair of Love is Blindness. It may still be up for debate just exactly what the ‘love’ of the title is referring to, but I think the tortured guitar solo is pretty clear that whatever it is, it’s toxic and unwelcome. It’s not exactly an uplifting or anthemic way to round out a classic album, but I think it suits the strange, uncertain mood of this album perfectly.
I’m not sure if it’s my favourite U2 album, or even if I have one – for a while there, they were an important part of what I was listening to, but I never did quite latch on to them the way I did other bands. I’ve been looking forward to reviewing this all week, but I’m not sure I’ll be going back to it the way I have with several others in the list.
I can’t quite put my finger on it, but while it’s as familiar to me as any of these, I feel like maybe it’s an example of an album you had to be there for – it’s undoubtedly a classic album, but perhaps of its time. Maybe it’s that unsettled mood of the whole thing, or maybe it’s me. Either way, I’m glad I left it on the list, but I’m already looking forward to the next one…
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Well, naturally, I’m expected to say The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, and they are both splendid. Myself, I think I always enjoyed Zooropa more than I was supposed to – it’s kind of an album of songs rushed into being without the usual agonising and careful sculpting, and I remember loving it at the time. Maybe that’s the one I’ll go back to…
Compilations to consider?
There are plenty, of course – the two Best Ofs cover the 1980s and then everything else; perhaps its time for a more comprehensive career summary.
Under a Blood Red Sky was the first time I properly heard U2, and I’m still fond of its short, sharp and to the point nature. The aforementioned Rattle and Hum contains some live tracks, but they’ve never done another one, in spite of the globe-straddling nature of their live shows.
If you get the chance to see the Glastonbury performance in the pouring rain from 2011, that’s worth a look. And, you know what? I’m certain there are all manner of books about them, but I’ve never felt inclined to pick one up. Maybe I should. Oh, and if you do check out Until the End of the World (the Wim Wenders movie, that is), try to find the 280-minute version; it’s more like a miniseries than a movie, but it’s mesmerising and has one of my favourite soundtracks.