It’s exciting (and sometimes a bit sad) to see bands you liked in your youth evolve into something else by adulthood. U2 has seen plenty of changes in it’s 30+ years as a band. Change is not at allways bad, but for Dublin’s finest, it’s second big transition had some sour temporary side effects. Still they lost a little of what made some fans fall in love with them from the beginning.
I was in high school when songs like “Gloria” and “Pride” were college radio and MTV regulars. Beyond those outlets, few had ever listened to their music in America. By my junior year of college, U2 had become the world’s biggest band with all the hoopla that comes with that contentious title.
Rattle and Hum, the band’s sixth studio album is an oddity of extreme peaks and valleys. Slimmed down, it would have made one great EP. Instead it was sprawling 17 track hour plus package of frustration. Arriving after the near masterpiece The Joshua Tree, it is considered the last ‘classic’ U2 album. Rattle and Hum was born out of the idle moments of the Joshua Tree, tour and was either a calculated step to pander to America, pay tribute to rock legends or re-affirm the band’s status a world class arena act. After hearing The Edge’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner”, it’s hard to not think that there was a little of all the above at play.
The autumn of 1988 was a time when all of U2’s fame seemed to rush to Bono’s head, or so his distractors would have you believe. Recorded in multiple locations, the album was as much a transitional exercise as it was a lofty experiment in reaching out to classic rock and blues fans. As ambitious as the album was (it accompanied a documentary that more or less framed the band as the decade’s biggest movement in rock), it did feature a few of the band’s best late ’80s moments.
Even Bono’s sometimes heavy handed ambitions for charity and social justice could not snuff out some of what it still liked about U2 on this album. As a starving college junior, U2’s message no longer resonated with me the way it did before. With their music being played everywhere, their formally sincere message seemed diluted to me. Cat and dog love songs could not have been too far behind. Bono had already been testing the waters with various duet projects (often with impressive results).
Maybe it was just my snobbish attitude towards mainstream success, even if it came from formally obscure alternative acts. Today I still find myself skipping over songs that felt pretentious and are still hard to listen too now. In their place are a handful of excellent tributes to soul, gospel and blues legends that reaffirmed that U2 had not lost all of its mystery to mainstream success.
“Angel of Harlem”, a tribute to Billie Holiday was one of a handful of songs where U2 showed an American side formally hidden in the veil of past Eno/Lanios productions. The horn inflicted track is both upbeat and somber with a rare sing along quality. This was also the point where the vaguely spiritual meaning of songs in the past had become less shrouded in metaphor.
With Brian Eno and Daniel Lanios taking a backseat to Jimmy Lovine, U2 no longer leaned on the ambient wall of sound that made previous albums so distinctive. In its place was a more straightforward rock sound that owed much of it’s moxey to American influences (arena rock/blues riffs and black choirs for instance). The all over the place material (held together by various protest themes) translated to less ambiguous lyrical content augmented by dialogue as if to introduce the band’s lyrical theology to a much broader audience.
The strong lead single “Desire” was another attempt to graft American influences by appropriating a basic Bo Diddley beat (3-2 clave rhythm). It would be “I Still Have Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, a hit song originally from The Joshua Tree that was U2’s most successful appropriation of its American influences. Featuring The New Voices of Freedom gospel choir, it got a looser more emotional makeover. The song’s second life and the video culled from the flopped Rattle and Hum film helped to reinforce U2 as something of a curiosity in the black church in America, if only for a fleeting moment. By many standards, the song is considered one of the best ever from U2. Bonos spiritual aspirations would make a much larger impact in that he would gain the respect of and connect too with many church organizations who shared his humanitarian passions.
With its fame and musical formula at the height of commercial (and often critical) acceptance, U2 would find that it became the template for everything from megachurch worship music to inspiration for then new bands like Radiohead and Coldplay. Many critics saw Rattle and Hum as a ghastly mixed bag, some going as far to accuse the band putting themselves on the same level as Bob Dylan, The Beatles or Jimi Hendrix. The speeches and monologues between tracks only reinforced the belief – adding fuel to many on the right who saw U2 as an example of liberal idealism gone wild.
Unfortunately, the Rattle and Hum film only strengthens that belief to the uninitiated. Bono’s celebrity was as big as life and his ambitions could sometimes border on obnoxious. It was clear that this was not the U2 that got me through high school. The band had lost some of its mystery (quite literally because Eno/Lanios involvement was minimal if at all). Beyond the familiar favorites like “Pride”, there were moments that reminded me of earlier material, specifically the Edge’s wailing guitar on “Silver and Gold” and “Heartland”. Even as the band was moving away from The Joshua Tree model with a hybrid studio/live album, there were some glimpses of it’s future sound on the bass happy “God Part II”.
After scoring gold with just about every release up to this point, U2’s evolution in the ’90s would make me appreciate bits of Rattle and Hum. Time makes it easier to filter the music from all the hype. The bits that are left still hold up well with age.