Reviewed by Graham Jovanovic
After 1997's dance infused offering 'Pop' some fans were suggesting that the bubble of Dublin's finest poseurs had finally burst. However, true to form, U2's first single from their new album rocketed to number one in October (always a good month of the year for them) and found them sitting high in the charts with "Beautiful Day" in refreshing contrast to the karaoke culture that is currently in vogue. Old fans gave an affirmative nod to the fact that this sounds like the U2 of the '80s with a non-ironic heartfelt vocal from Bono and Edge's atmospheric, evocative guitar style surrounding the landscape. This marked a change in direction with U2 taking off the post modern mask that marked the almost psychedelic media frenzy of ZOO TV and the disco experimentation of the Popmart tour which were laced with dark humour. The only reference to these manic periods is "Elevation", driven by razor edged guitars sawing through a cool funk electronica and carried off with their own brand of rock'n'roll chic. On the new reasonably priced 12 track offering Bono sings "I can't sing but I've got soul, the goal is elevation" which U2 blasted out on Top Of The Pops and CD:UK, clearly relishing playing live, swaggering in like some kind of Dublin Mafiosos with youngsters moshing to the pulsating beat in what is a return to basics. Soul is primarily what this album is about, in particular with the superb "Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of" and the Motown inspired "In A Little While" that contains a stunning vocal as the band seek to continue to discover great tunes. These are the kinds of moments that sustain a U2 album where they take on a song that is out of character for them, get away successfully with it and in doing so prove incredible musical versatility and show that they have come a long way from once being branded "the worst cover band in the world." "Wild Honey" is an amusing acoustic offering that is surprisingly laid back and romantically playful where the mounting tension of "New York" continues the band's fascination for America. "Walk On" and "Kite" revisit familiar territory; one with a guitar hook that should easily fill stadiums and the other possessing a soaring chorus that is not totally unlike Oasis. The big difference of course here is that the anthemic crusading of "Walk On" is dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi under virtual house arrest in Burma since 1989 and shows the band's willingness to support worthwhile causes such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace International, War Child and Jubilee 2000 Coalition and reveal a desire to be far more than just a pop band. Bono recently said in an interview with Q magazine, "I wish I could live up to the idea of Christianity. It's like I'm a fan; I'm not actually in the band", possibly inspired after recently meeting the Pope. Indeed redemption is an issue in "Peace On Earth" and "When I Look At The World" showing more evidence of Edge's multi-layered harmonizing guitars creating much of the drama. There is almost prayerful consideration to concerns for the state of the planet before the album bows out with the appropriately titled and beautifully punned "Grace." The gritty ballad "Ground Beneath Her Feet" from Bono's poorly received Million Dollar Hotel film script is also thrown in just for good measure. All of this is held together with understated assurance by drummer Larry Mullen and bassist Adam Clayton leaving The Edge to aspire to the mantle of last guitar hero. Bono recently said that "We've always been about more than music. We're about spirituality. We're about the world in which we live. Our music has always reflected that." This offering is quite an achievement with Bono's grizzled voice hitting new highs (we're not just talking about that falsetto) and revealing a maturity that platforms a great lyricist and reveals another part of U2's appeal. "I'm just trying to find a decent melody" he sings sounding at times like a man that has seen the world, had everything thrown at him and still come out winning. This is a part of the band's enduring charm and have found some of their finest moments here whilst wisely consulting the assistance of producers and long time collaborators Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois who seem to understand their designer rock'n'roll persona in a way that dance master Howie B struggled to on their previous project. A new U2 album is always a big occasion, especially after 1987's Joshua Tree opened up the world marketplace for them, and has aimed to be about important, exciting music which has caused people to love or loathe them. Unusually there are relaxed, almost sedate qualities to some of these positive songs that talk of family, friends and big world issues revealing occasional mid-life worries and responsibilities understandably lacking some of the angst of their youth. But, true to form, this is an album that gets better with each listen and shows the experience of a band in U2's exalted position and the maturity that may yet allow them rock immortality. The only irony here with U2's return to their earlier earnest tone and basic song-writing is that with such an eclectic and developed mix of musical influences and textures is that this is the album that reflects pop more accurately, rather than its predecessor, and in doing so possesses a freshness that has maintained this band's relevance. This is more than simple reinvention or retrospection, U2's pursuit to "Dream out loud at high volume" is still a reality.
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