The Undertones – Hypnotised

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

At one point, I owned all four original Undertones albums. The Sin of Pride, which some people rate as the best Undertones album, is at a minimum a well-done Motown pastiche, but honestly, Feargal Sharkey does not have the voice for soul. I haven’t yet relistened to Positive Touch. I should probably also check out early That Petrol Emotion.

What I Think of This Album

The Undertones might have mocked themselves and the music press simultaneously with lead track “More Songs About Chocolate and Girls” (which acknowledges “It’s not so easy knowing they’ll be heard / A lot less time but a lot more care”), but that was ultimately a fakeout. Hypnotised is not a retread of the debut – that would have been a sucker’s move, because the refreshing excitement of The Undertones could not have been duplicated. Rather, the band has evolved into an excellent power-pop outfit.

They branch out a bit musically this time, with many songs that would have seemed out of place on the first album. The title track, for instance, is darker and instead of pop-punk is more like pop-postpunk (imagine Howard Devoto fronting The Rezillos), and the automaton backing vocals and tense guitar on “Boys Will Be Boys” show that the band could adopt a colder, more taut aesthetic.

I swear that “See That Girl” has a Herman’s Hermits influence, but at any rate features some unexpected acoustic guitar work and lyrics that suggested concerns beyond candy and girls (“I wake up screaming in the middle of something wrong”). “The Way Girls Talk” is a vulnerable piece that Morrissey undoubtedly studied in his youth, with a neat little guitar riff, and the band gets even sadder on gentle, ‘60’s influenced “Wednesday Week.” There is a glammy stomp behind driving “Hard Luck,” and “Tearproof” may have been the most musically complex song they had attempted to date.

Granted, “Whizz Kids” and the fantastic “Nine Times Out of Ten” are throwbacks, as is the hilarious “My Perfect Cousin,” but serial killer-themed (and somehow, thoroughly enjoyable) “There Goes Norman” is something entirely new. The cover of “Under the Boardwalk” starts out sounding like a horrible mistake, but Feargal Sharkey pulls off a miracle and ends up doing a creditable job. Another great Undertones album, and this time with even more democratic songwriting contributions.

My Rykodisc reissue gifts five additional tracks, including showstopper single “You’ve Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It?),” and some B-sides (with ‘50’s flavored rave-up “I Told You So” being the best of the bunch).

There is also a slight possibility that “More Songs About Chocolate and Girls” was a nod to the Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food.

Roger Béchirian sat in the producer’s chair again.

The Best Thing About This Album

“There Goes Norman” is as catchy as it is disturbing.

Release Date

April, 1980 (original); 1994 (reissue)

The Cover Art

This is so incredibly stupid that I really like it. This is the band’s rhythm section at a restaurant in New York. The fucking lobster bibs. Hahahahahahaha.

The Undertones – The Undertones

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

The best ever Irish band is found in the “U” section of my (and anyone’s) collection. That band is the Undertones. Formed in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1974, the band revolved around the Brothers O’Neill (John and Damian) and vibrato-master Feargal Sharkey on vocals, and specialized in fizzy punk-pop, though they expanded their sound on future albums. Upon breaking up in 1983, the O’Neills formed That Petrol Emotion. A reformed but Sharkey-less Undertones released two more albums in the 2000s.

What I Think of This Album

This may be the most fun album I own. Its vibrant, energetic, catchy as fuck, and perfectly, utterly, fundamentally teenage. The band infused their fast, three chord songs with joy, but somehow avoided being either a novelty or cutesy; their teenage outlook was more Ramones than Violent Femmes, avoiding raw angst or moody brooding and focusing on the dual rush of hormones and junk food. Admittedly, their music was not at all threatening and arguably less interesting for it, but by leaning into speed, melody, and light crunch, the band brought jubilation and ebullience to a punk scene that was (understandably and righteously) angrier and more confrontational. Honestly, if you can listen to any five songs chosen at random from this album and not smile, you are a pod person.

“Teenage Kicks” is an obvious classic, with Buzzcocks guitars, timelessly relatable lyrics about lustful urges, and a simple but effective melody. Many other songs are basically just as good. “Get Over You” is an odd but irresistible song of devotion, with rampaging drums and sweet harmonies. The Beach Boys via the Ramones are the inspiration for the speedy “Here Comes the Summer,” with a delightful keyboard line, and while “Girls Don’t Like It” may have a confused set of lyrics (though the meaning of “Leading us on / Telling us no / Making us stop instead of letting us go / But what else can you do if the girls don’t like it?” is clear enough), the music is a blast.

The band never runs out of energy or ideas, whether its the questionable rush of “Family Entertainment” (is this about incest?); the spiky “True Confessions,” the almost-girl-group “(She’s A) Runaround,” or the suicide song “Jimmy Jimmy,” as drummer Billy Doherty pounds away and the O’Neills frantically strum, and Sharkey billy-goats his way through each song.

John O’Neill was the primary songwriter, but Doherty contributed two tracks while Damian O’Neill provided one, and a few were collaborations between the O’Neills and bassist Michael Bradley.

The album’s release history is complicated. It was first released in May, 1979, and rereleased about five months later. The rerelease not only added the singles “Teenage Kicks” and “Get Over You,” but also swapped in a single version of “Here Comes the Summer” for the album version (at the time of original release, the single version did not yet exist), and also added “Casbah Rock.” The cover art was also redone.

Complicated, but it gets worse. I have the Rykodisc reissue from 1994, which appends seven bonus tracks. It also, apparently, replaces the rerecorded version of “True Confessions” used on the original release and rerelease with the very first version of the song from the pre-album Teenage Kicks EP. The word is that the two versions are very different. I have no way of knowing if this is true (well, I could do the research, but short of that, I mean). One of the extra tracks, the silly “Mars Bar” contains a sly reference to Bowie and his song “Life On Mars.” Most of the bonus material is strong, with “One Way Love,” “Emergency Cases,” and “Top Twenty” being standouts.

Roger Béchirian (Trash Can Sinatras, Nick Lowe) produced.

The Best Thing About This Album

The sheer exuberance of the music.

Release Date

May, 1979 (original); October, 1979 (reissue); 1994 (Rykodisc reissue)

The Cover Art

So much work with this album. The reissue album cover is an elevated shot of the band and some Buzzcocks-like graphics and colors (it reminds me of “A Different Kind of Tension,” released one month earlier). It’s pretty boring. The original was a muted shot of the band sitting on a stone wall, with a bizarre but interesting composition and a nice green color for the font.

Uncle Tupelo – Anodyne

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

There are four Uncle Tupelo studio albums. The third, produced by Peter Buck, is March 16-20, 1992, which is half covers of folk songs and all acoustic. People go crazy over it – it sold more than No Depression and Still Feel Gone combined – but I couldn’t stand it. Factoring my dislike of the debut, this means that I don’t care for the extremes – punky or folky – of Uncle Tupelo. Give me the second and fourth albums, or give me death.

What I Think of This Album

As with all last-albums-before-the-breakup, the temptation is to view the work through the lens of the dissolution. Here, that urge is augmented by the fact that the newly-expanded backing band – drummer Ken Coomer, bassist John Stirrat, and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston – all stuck with Tweedy and became Wilco.

The songwriting split does appear to be more stark than ever, with Tweedy’s five songs featuring livelier tempos and more pop melodies, and Farrar leveraging his voice and poetry on his more somber six tracks. Overall, though, this is the album that most closely ties the band to their country-rock predecessors of the ‘60s. The somewhat surprising meld of punk and country (not that Jason and the Scorchers and Green on Red hadn’t already done that) turned out to be not so odd after all, as it evolved into a more modern version of what the Byrds had done.

Each songwriter hits some highs on this fine album. “Chickamauga” is a rousing rocker from Farrar, with a Neil Young guitar part, and lyrics about a breakup (hmmmm). Tweedy counters with the excellent journey-as-metaphor “The Long Cut;” the rustic, enigmatic, seismically-themed “New Madrid”  (with a superior banjo played by Johnston); and the impassioned duality of “We’ve Been Had,” in which he beats the Jesus and Mary Chain to the “I Hate Rock ‘n’ Roll” / “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” punch. No such ambivalence taints the celebratory “Acuff-Rose,” which, despite being a fun little number, is also sort of lightweight.

Meanwhile, Farrar’s “Slate” will have people wondering again if Tweedy and Tupelo are the objects, and the weariness and defeat of “Fifteen Keys” will also raise some eyebrows. The future Wilco sound is fully present on “No Sense In Lovin’.” The cover of Doug Sahm’s “Give Back the Key to My Heart” is sung by Sahm himself, in a pleasantly amber voice, and this excellent song also serves to further tie Uncle Tupelo to its musical heritage.

Max Johnston is the younger sibling of Michelle Shocked. Uncle Tupelo opened for Michelle Shocked, whom Johnston was supporting. The tour ended badly but Johnston forged a relationship with Tupelo and ended up in the band. Dixie Chicks patriarch Lloyd Maines plays pedal steel on the album.

The Best Thing About This Album

“The Long Cut,” for its sweetness and hope.

Release Date

October, 1993

The Cover Art

Love the color, and the ribbon extending from the left. The photo itself is a bit messy. Fewer guitars would have worked better.

Uncle Tupelo – Still Feel Gone

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I once saw a Jeff Tweedy solo show at the Lounge Ax. I forget the year, but it was before Wilco got big. Some guy in the audience (which wasn’t even that sizeable) shouted out “No Tupelo!” – not that Tweedy had yet played any Uncle Tupelo songs. It’s possible the shouter meant it as encouragement – that Tweedy should be confident in his own, new material. At any rate, Tweedy, not immediately but shortly thereafter, launched into an Uncle Tupelo number (I don’t remember which one), and afterwards, he angrily declared “They’re my songs, too.” Uncle Tupelo formed in Belleville, Illinois in the early 1980s, starting as a cover band called The Plebes and then the Primatives (or possibly, the Primitives). When they changed their name in the late ‘80’s, they began writing their own material. Four albums later, songwriters Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy’s relationship ruptured, and Farrar formed Son Volt while Tweedy created Wilco.

What I Think of This Album

I much prefer this second album to debut No Depression, which title notwithstanding, was an difficult examination of a bleak, bored, rural Rust Belt existence, with multiple songs about alcohol abuse, and where the most uplifting number – the excellent cover of the Carter Family’s “No Depression In Heaven” – suggested that the only escape was death. That album was also dominated by Jay Farrar and is the Tupelo disc that most honors their punk roots (indeed, hardcore roots, judging from the oppressive rhythms).

On Still Feel Gone, the band gets more melodic and less tightly wound (though this is not a band that seems to know how to have fun at all). Too, both songwriters have grown. They better channel their punk fury – note the pounding drums at the end of “Fall Down Easy” (excellent job, Mike Heidorn!) or the guitar noise of “Looking for a Way Out” – into pop structures and seem more comfortable with country instrumentation and arrangement. The stop-start dynamics are still present (particularly on “Postcard” and appropriately on tribute to “D. Boon” of the Minutemen) but they don’t overwhelm.

In general, Farrar sounds less angry and considerably wiser, accepting without being resigned. His work on the spare, vulnerable, alcohol-soaked “Still Be Around” is amazing, and his emotional vocal on “Punch Drunk” is incomparable. Too, he adds grace and heft to the fatalistic but not hopeless “True to Life” (with Bottle Rocket Brian Henneman on guitar).

Tweedy gets many more songs this time, and they generally go down easier than Farrar’s. It’s arguable that he proves to be the better songwriter this time. I’m obviously looking at it from the wrong end, but you can hear the seeds of Wilco here, particularly on “Nothing” and “If That’s Alright.” Neither of these, as good as they are, can compete with rumbly opener “Gun.” And the nimble “Watch Me Fall” – with guitar from Jawhawk Gary Louris and a subtle accordion, organ, and banjo backing – is phenomenal, and the off-beat drum hits/guitar strums at 1:27 are positively joy-inducing. Also, “Cold Shoulder” is an affecting realization that the person you love doesn’t love you.

Louris plays guitar on three songs total, and Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie produced (with Slade contributing piano and organ).

I have the Legacy reissue, which came out in 2003 after Farrar and Tweedy won the rights to the songs from original label Rockville. The disc adds five bonus tracks – mostly demos – all enjoyable, including an excellent cover of the Soft Boys’ “I Wanna Destroy You” and downer original “Sauget Wind,” which makes me think of the Byrds’ “Hickory Wind” and more importantly, deserved to have been included on the album proper. The liner notes are by accomplished author/producer/editor/archivist/curator Holly George Warren.

The Best Thing About This Album

Probably “Gun,” but “Watch Me Fall” is a close contender.

Release Date

September, 1991 (original); March, 2003 (reissue)

The Cover Art

I don’t know. On the one hand, I like the color and the font, as well as the use of texture, but on the other, the image (a cropped shot of the band on stage) is murky.

U2 – Achtung Baby

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

It took me at least a decade – probably more – to fully come around on this album. And the “fully” part may be wishful thinking, as I still honestly can’t stand U2 and those feelings remain linked, in part, to this album. There were several reasons for my initial hatred of this album. One was that U2 and I were just growing apart. When I first liked them, I was still in my early teens, not yet fully immersed in alternative and indie. By the time Achtung Baby came out, I was in college and had almost completely moved away from mainstream rock. Another factor was the immense loss of goodwill that resulted from the execrable Rattle and Hum. Bono was insufferable and self-righteous, and the whole band seemed to start believing in their own status (ironic, given how The Joshua Tree balanced the myth of America against the reality of America), fully crossing over into self-parody. Third, this album was inescapable and I resented that. There was not a single party I attended in college post-Acthung Baby that did not include “Mysterious Ways” or “One” on the soundtrack. I never wanted to hear these songs again. Over time, and with distance, I came back to it to see what I might have overlooked. In retrospect, this is the last great U2 album. The title should carry a comma, I think.

What I Think of This Album

This is nothing more and nothing less than U2’s alternative rock album. They get waaaayyyyy too much credit for adopting the harsher guitars and dance beats of their younger peers. None of these sounds are new or innovative – but they are for U2. Where they should get credit is for doing it well. And that should come with a helping of criticism for being clueless, self-satisfied egomaniacs about it. As good as this album was, it represented the point at which I just could not take this band anymore, and that hasn’t changed (though I will admit that “Wild Honey” off of All That You Can’t Leave Behind is a wonderful pop song, and one of my favorite U2 tracks – not surprisingly, it represents a lighter side of the band, which basically does not exist).

The intro to “Zoo Station” is pretty fucking cool, with that nasty riff, the rhythm track, and then the processed drums. What’s hilarious is that U2 wanted to confuse listeners and make them think their stereo equipment was broken . . . which would be my mother’s reaction to that intro. U2 is so laughably out-of-touch, lacking any understanding of the world around them. If they honestly thought their fans would react to hearing distortion and programmed drums with bewilderment and concern that their stereos were malfunctioning, then U2 were truly musical innocents.

The band repeats the awesome intro trick on “Even Better Than the Real Thing. Some of the vocal melody is fine, but the chorus is absolute garbage; the guitar tones later in the song are creative and effective, and the solo is appealing. I hate “One” – the melody, the vocals, the lyrics, all of it. The percussion and guitar on “Until the End of the World” absolutely make this song, which is otherwise <sigh> a conversation between Jesus and Judas. Ignoring that, the Edge shines on this track, using different tones, riffs, and textures expertly.

One of my favorites of all of U2’s entire catalog is “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” again with an outstanding intro. The Edge doesn’t do a lot but his distorted, reverby tone is excellent. And Bono thankfully does not try to do too much with the lyrics; the backing harmonies (which might not be a vocal, I’m not sure) are nice, too. If you want a ballad, I suggest you skip “One” and head straight for “So Cruel,” a marvelous construction featuring piano, strings, and a syncopated rhythm track.

Once again, the intro to “The Fly” just fucking slays. In fact, the entire guitar element of this song is amazing, with a solo that manages to combine the old U2 sound with the new. I wish the Edge would cut loose like this more often. And the percussion works really well, too. I have come to embrace “Mysterious Ways,” though I still find Bono’s vocals annoying, with its funky rhythms (nice congas, courtesy of Daniel Lanois), a slinky bass part, and spy movie embellishments. This is arguably the sexiest U2 has come across on record.

From there, the album ends unimpressively. The “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” line basically ruins “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World,” which is a decent and almost lighthearted tune. The familiar pattern of Bono’s delivery hampering an otherwise fine musical backing reappears on “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” which, if you tune out the vocals, is a great song. The same cannot be said for “Acrobat,” which is an unsalvageable mess, nor for the eminently forgettable and overcooked “Love Is Blindness,” which features the Edge’s hammiest playing on the album, if not his professional career.

Lanois mostly produced, with Brian Eno contributing and Steve Lillywhite as well; Flood was the engineer, again.

Not surprisingly, U2 ultimately fell back into the same trap as they had post-The Joshua Tree of becoming too convinced of their uniqueness. Bono’s attempt at parody through his Fly and MacPhisto (groan) characters – and this is assuming he is being honest about his intentions, and this wasn’t a latter-day retcon – was fundamentally flawed because the very idea of parodying rock star behavior by creating and adopting different personas – particularly, those that you maintain in public and off-stage – is itself egotistical behavior.

And in any event, the actions and attitudes of these not-at-all-clever creations were pretty close to Bono’s own predilections before and after, most notably perhaps via the fact that “Bono” was a stage name. Young Paul Hewson was in a “surrealist street gang” (Jesus Fucking Christ) and he went by various names, including “Huysman” and “Steinhegvanhuysenolegbangbangbang” (sigh) and “Bono Vox” (roughly, “good vocals” in Latin – eyeroll). Making prank calls to politicians from the stage isn’t that far removed from preaching about the Troubles or singing tributes to Martin Luther King, Jr. In other words, Bono was always a pompous loudmouth – the oversized sunglasses didn’t suddenly render his actions ironic.

More generally, the band spent the years since this era overly concerned with their public and critical perception, wrapped up in the belief that as the biggest band in the world (not my words) they carried some special burden. The whole thing actually speaks to a dearth of confidence and self-esteem, which is evident in their desperate need to record with B.B. King or “steal back” a song on behalf of the Beatles. The fact is that U2 is embarrassed to be U2 but too scared to admit it.

Part of the problem is that U2 really has no organic musical heritage. The Joshua Tree was born of a recent introduction to folk, blues, and roots music. Achtung Baby was a quick adoption of alternative, dance, and industrial sounds. Pop added more techno and electronica elements. But just as a distortion pedal appeared to be a revelation for the Edge in 1991, so too did sequencers in 1997. These things should not have been so eye-opening. It’s just that U2 exists in a vacuum. Worse, they pretend that they don’t, so you get ridiculous statements like that Pop was a conscious effort to deconstruct a four piece rock band. Get over yourselves – what really happened is that you figured out fifteen years after New Order did that you could combine sequencers, drum loops, and guitars. And five years after Jesus Jones did, for fuck’s sake. I ask, where does U2 come from? What can you connect them to? U2 is certainly capable of covering a Dylan, Ramones, or Chuck Berry song, but not with any sincerity. They exist exclusively in their own world.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?,” though I could just as easily credit the Edge’s guitar playing.

Release Date

November, 1991

The Cover Art

A mess, but you know what? Points for not giving us a typical U2 album cover.

U2 – The Joshua Tree

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

This album was huge. I think there was a year in high school when, on any given day, at least three kids were wearing this concert t-shirt. Suddenly, everybody loved U2. Kids, adults, critics, mainstream press. The Joshua Tree sold over 10,000,000 copies in the U.S. The album struck the right balance in many ways:  artsy but still rock; socially conscious without being preachy; moody while still loud; spiritual but not overtly religious; a celebration of America’s mythology but from an outsider’s perspective. Some of my love for it has waned – it lacks the personal resonance for me that a lot of the best music offers – but I still like it a lot. I wish I could have gone to the concert.

What I Think of This Album

There is no serious debate that this is the best U2 album. Cinematic and compelling, the band turned The Unforgettable Fire inside out for this follow-up. Sporting a much more organic sound, The Joshua Tree” retained the spaciousness of the previous album as well as its textures, but avoided any true experimentation. Shit, “Running to Stand Still” is basically “Bad,part two.

Starting with some frankly weird acoustic bluesy string bends, “Running” is at heart a piano ballad, lovely in its delicacy and affecting in its starkness. The introduction of Larry Mullen, Jr.’s rumbling, oceanic drums and Bono’s falsetto crooning add drama and depth. There are shades of Lou Reed in Bono’s spoken delivery. The band appropriates folk protest music on “Red Hill Mining Town,” which incorporates gospel sounds as well. Similarly, “Trip Through Your Wires” combines gospel with the blues, with an interesting autoharp part played by producer Daniel Lanois and a respectable harmonica from Bono. The yelping from Bono, though, I could do without.

The elegiac “One Tree Hill” – somehow both a tribute to a deceased friend and a political number about the Pinochet regime in Chile – depends a great deal on Mullen, Jr.’s skillful drumming and the alternating use of Edge’s guitar and a separate string arrangement. Closer “Mothers of the Disappeared” is the track that most evokes the sound of previous album, with a gauzy, hypnotic patina coating the gentle undulations, anchored by a fuzzy drone of a rhythm loop; it is a stunning, moving piece of work paying tribute to the lost generations of Latin American children, murdered by their own governments (with the backing of the U.S.).

Then, of course, there are the hits. Notably, these anthems manage to avoid bombast and instead unfurl into open and expansive soundscapes while remaining intimate and personal. “Where the Streets Have No Name” relies on an impressionistic swell of keyboards complemented by the Edge’s delayed guitar arpeggio, augmented by the insistent contributions of bassist Adam Clayton and Mullen, Jr., and capped off by a truly excellent performance from Bono. Really, a perfect opening track. The band doubles down with the spiritual questioning of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” bringing in a considerable soul/gospel element. Not to be overlooked are the slippery bass part and another fine performance behind the kit from Mullen, Jr. Finally, the tormented romantic troubles of “With or Without You” are made poignant by the Edge’s ghostly work (plus a repeating riff and a closing pattern) and Bono’s skilled use of his vocal range. All of these songs are verifiable smashes, and the fact that they don’t overshadow the other strong selections is a testament to the quality of the album.

Honestly, though, there are weaknesses. The harried and shimmering “In God’s Country” is almost U2-by-the-numbers, presaging the overbearing schtick of Rattle and Hum, but managing to not stick out too badly from the rest of the album. There is no positive spin to “Bullet the Blue Sky,” which is AWFUL, and would be reintroduced in an even worse – somehow – live version the following year. “Exit” is downright embarrassing, not to mention simply boring.

Brian Eno co-produced with Lanois, and Flood (Depeche Mode, Erasure, Nine Inch Nails, PJ Harvey) engineered; Steve Lillywhite mixed some of the tracks.

Tidbit:  Kirsty MacColl (spouse at the time of Lillywhite) sequenced the album, being instructed only on what the first and final songs should be.

The Best Thing About This Album

I am going to give credit to Larry Mullen, Jr., whose drumming I never really paid attention to before.

Release Date

March, 1987

The Cover Art

Anton Corbijn again, this time trying his hand at a panoramic camera, and the story is he didn’t know how to use it, resulting in a sharp background and a blurry foreground (at least on the original CD release). The cover art for the original vinyl/CD/cassette was different for each format, but reissues of the CD used the vinyl cover. The vinyl art is much better than the original CD art (which is a blurry, vertically distorted crop of the art shown here, and with a lot less negative space at the top and bottom margins), more closely making a visual connection between the image and the music.

U2 – The Unforgettable Fire

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

This and The Joshua Tree were among the first CDs I ever bought (also, Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms). It was a time when I was becoming more aware of music, but fitfully and without regard for how to be a fan. Mainly, I pretended I knew a lot more about it than I did. Ninth grade me acted like he was a huge U2 fan when he really did not know a damn thing about U2. I just wanted to be cool and respected, and if referencing Under a Blood Red Sky would help, then I was going to act like I knew that live album inside and out. Needless to say, I remained uncool and not respected.

What I Think of This Album

This is really the album where U2 became U2, even if what it meant to be U2 later evolved (or devolved, depending on your point of view). Working with Brian Eno (Roxy Music) and his engineer, the then-little-known Daniel Lanois, U2 consciously, but not completely, moved away from their earlier, more traditional rock sound to embrace atmosphere and texture.

If you want the old U2, it is still there, on the admittedly rousing “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Indian Summer Sky,” and “Wire,” and to a certain line-straddling extent, the title track, too. But in the context of the new approach heard on the rest of the album, these tracks come across as blunt and blustery, if not histrionic.

The heart of the release is the quieter material. The poetic, hushed “Promenade” is one of my favorite U2 songs, with Bono uncharacteristically singing in a (mostly) subdued manner, and the Edge (Jesus, why do these guys make it so hard to like them; I can barely bring myself to type these stupid stage names) playing delicate, effected skeletal figures, with subtle keyboards behind them, and a barely-there rhythm section. I can’t complain that it’s only about two-and-a-half minutes long, because it works that way, but I wish it had gone on for longer. I don’t think they ever wrote a more beautiful song.

Compelling drug tale “Bad” finds everyone contributing, with Adam Clayton’s creative bass part working in sympathy with Larry Mullen, Jr.’s drumming, which combines a steady bass drum beat with more technical polyrhythms; the Edge’s crystalline guitar figures interlocking with Eno’s keyboard contributions; and finally Bono’s impressionistic lyrics and modulated delivery. “Promenade” may be my favorite track, but there is no question that “Bad” is the highlight of the album.

Of course, the band gave you a good idea of what was going to happen on the opener, “A Sort of Homecoming,” which presents a funkier drum sound than ever heard on a U2 album, as well as a more painterly guitar effort. “Elvis Presley and America” features improvised lyrics, and in that light, is not at all bad (supposedly Bono was not aware that Eno would not allow him to go back and rerecord it with proper lyrics), but regardless, the music is pretty great (and that’s because it is a slowed down backing track from “A Sort of Homecoming”).

“The Unforgettable Fire” tries to have it both ways, marrying the band’s early sound to a striking, string-enhanced framework, and it doesn’t really work. Taking the opposite approach is instrumental “4th of July,” which is fully an ambient piece (though to credit the band with intentionality is to overstate things, as Eno created the track by surreptitiously recording the Edge and Clayton while they doodled). The lullaby that is “MLK” closes the album, and is a very slight (and somewhat pandering) song, but is not terrible by any means.

The Best Thing About This Album

It’s not the best song, but “Promenade” makes this album for me.

Release Date

October, 1984

The Cover Art

More, please. Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn captures the moodiness and mystery of the best parts of the album with this ivy-covered shot against a dramatic sky. Unfortunately, it was essentially the same photograph as one already taken and published by Simon Marsden, and the band had to pony up for copyright infringement. This image makes it look like the dominant color is maroon, but my copy is full on purple.

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