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Review – U2 at Soldier Field, Chicago, 09-13-2009

September 15, 2009 2 comments

Overall Review

U2 are always best when they’re laughing at themselves. While many critics have called them preening, pretentious, and any number of other words that start with the letter P, they’ve reached a point that no one can fault them for not being able to know when they’re taking themselves too seriously. Their current tour, dubbed “U2 360,” has the largest set ever constructed for a rock show. It features an enormous LCD screen that descends from the equally enormous pylon structure (or “The Claw”) and then breaks apart into a web-like lattice that makes the band member appear to be about 40 feet tall. It has a full-circle catwalk attached to the main, center stage by two movable bridges. The center spire of the structure stands yards above the top of Chicago’s Soldier Field, topped with one of two mirror balls on the stage.

The 360 stage, preshow.

Bono, early in Sunday’s show (the second of two nights in Chicago to open the North American leg of the tour), thanked the crowd for allowing them to build “this madness.” He delivered his thanks with a genuine smile, and throughout the night’s set, all four members—including the notoriously stoic drummer, Larry Mullen Jr.—smiled and laughed through a set that included a relatively well-balanced mix of old and new U2 songs. Early U2 were serious and… more serious. Middle-era U2 were ironic, and poking fun at rock and roll in general. Now, after the relatively tame All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb tours (called Elevation and Vertigo, respectively), U2 have finally started doing what they set out to do over a decade ago: they’re finally poking fun at themselves.

Known as much for his showmanship as his outlandish on-stage rants and his raging messiah complex, Bono seemed more human in this show than years previous. It seems that age has finally taught him the sense to know when to tone down his almost stream-of-consciousness stage banter. He’s spending less time trying to fight the crowd that’s singing his songs; rather, he’s shepherding them, as on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” when he simply reminded them where they were going. Sure, on a couple songs Bono’s muse got the best of him and put him at odds with the crowd, especially during “One” and “With or Without You.” But by and large, Sunday’s version of Bono was less of his prancing ’90s alter-ego The Fly, and more of an MC or a DJ, the guy hosting the party.

And the rest of the band, including Mullen, bassist Adam Clayton, and guitarist The Edge, were just happy to see everybody. They were active, jogging from place to place, mugging for the audience and the multiple video cameras stationed around the stage, and generally being the showmen that thirty years of touring has trained them to be.

The monstrosity of the stage did little to divert attention from the band themselves. While they may have been dwarfed by such a technological marvel, it only served as a tool to allow the band to interact with the crowd on a new level (said Bono: “It’s okay to kiss a little Chicago ass, as long as you can kick it.”) For example, Bono pulled a young boy from the crowd to run the circumference of the outer catwalk during “City of Blinding Lights.” Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal for a guy known to pull women out of the crowd to dance with on stage, but the kid came from the middle of the “inner circle” crowd, lifted directly from beside the mobile catwalk.

All this glowing commentary is not without fault, of course. First, the inclusion of “Your Blue Room,” from the Eno/U2 project Passengers was a misfire for the crowd, most of which was probably unaware the song even existed. While the song was well done, and the production superb (including closing narration by a crew member of the International Space Station), it was unannounced, unintroduced, and unexpected. Diehard fans, of course, ate the song up, because it had never been performed live until Sunday night. In the future, though, I would think that some introduction might be necessary for the track, or future crowds will likely have the same tepid reaction to the song.

The band’s political grandstanding also grated against the flow of the show a bit. They dedicated the songs “MLK” and “Walk On” to Burmese politician Aung San Su Kyi, who was elected the leader of her country in the ’90s and has spent nearly every moment of her life since under house arrest. While this wouldn’t normally be a problem for this author—I was fine with their recasting of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” as a song for Iranian electoral freedom, but is a song I’ll still single out in a bit—the fact that nearly 100 crowd members march to the stage with masks depecting San Su Kyi’s face seemed a bit heavy-handed. Even for U2.

As for the aforementioned “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” I have the following to say: Bono adding The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” into one of the most unintentionally comical moments of the night. I think few people realize the political slant of “Rock the Casbah” and probably assumed Bono decided to suddenly turn a protest song into something silly. I don’t think that was Bono’s intention, but the irony of both “Rock the Casbah” and it’s inclusion as part of the coda of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was probably lost upon most of the crowd.

Finally, I was a little confused by the show’s clock/time theme. It never really hit me, though I assume it has something to do with a lyric on the new album I haven’t come across yet. Probably “Unknown Caller,” but I’m not sure.

All in all, the show was fantastic, and was probably my favorite large-format show, beating out three Tool shows and a previous U2 show at Minneapolis’s Target Center during the Vertigo tour. A gigantic spaceship-like stage, a top-notch technical production, and a band that is as tight and polished as it’s ever been throughout its career is a winning combination. And even through all that production and professionalism, they’re finally having a bit of a laugh at themselves. An honest laugh.

The stage during 'City of Blinding Lights.'

Song-by-Song (aka, For Fans Only)

“Breathe”
The mix was a bit off, but served as a decent enough opener. It doesn’t have the same power as the iconic “Zoo Station,” “Elevation,” or “Vertigo,” however. So the show started fairly average.

“No Line on the Horizon”
As the screen played animations based on the album’s artwork, the band rumbled on behind this song. Done well enough, but didn’t really do much for me personally.

“Get on Your Boots”
Bono definitely enjoyed playing with the lyrics and rhythm on this one. Adam’s giant fuzz-tone bass drove the song well, and during the song’s “Let me in the sound” breakdown, even Larry Mullen Jr. stood up behind his kit and chanted with the crowd. Well done, and I imagine as the tour progresses, this song will be one of the centerpieces of the set… even as the third song in the list.

“Magnificent”
This song was as soring as I was expecting. The song has one of the most anthematic of U2’s many anthematic choruses. And, as I predicted, the song sounds significantly better live than on the album. It’s probably the most “traditionally U2” song on the new album.

“Beautiful Day”
I’m assuming the intro to this song is a different song, but most of it was gladhanding Chicago. The sequenced build for the song, though, was quite good. As a side note, I was surprised by how little sequencing was actually in the show. Most of the drumming was live, most of the backing vocals were provided by The Edge, Larry Mullen, or the crowd. Most of the sequencing was used for synth pads or completely unworkable things like the remix of “I’ll Go Crazy,” which I’ll get to later. So… thirty years later, as a half electronic band, they’re still essentially four guys working it on stage. That takes some guts. And integrity. (And maybe some prodding from Radiohead.)

“Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”
The thing I noticed the most on this song is how much Bono’s voice has improved from the last two tours. It seemed ragged and brittle in years past, and this year seems to has come back into its ’90s mix of pure tone, range, and expressiveness. And listening back to the bootleg of the show (yes, less than 24 hours after the show ended), The Edge’s guitar was nice and shimmery, the crowd’s singing was superb, and the energy was just… nice. Not the explosion that it used to be in years past, but relaxed and pleasant. This was about the point the band and the crowd finally got acquainted.

“Elevation”
Bono made a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory “up and out” reference, and the crowd really ate this song up. The Edge added a bit of country flair to the bridge. Pretty amusing all around.

“Your Blue Room”
As I said earlier, this one misfired. The crowd wasn’t really into it. It was done well, and was quite tasteful, but the crowd just… wasn’t there. Confused, mainly. Also, I don’t know who did the female backing track. My wife claims that The Edge was doing them in falsetto, but I’m pretty sure they were piped in through Digital Performer (the band’s live sequencer.)

“Unknown Caller”
Another of the songs on No Line on the Horizon that I thought would be better live. And I was right. Partially because you could actually hear The Edge’s guitar during the verses. The chorus vocals were a little awkward, but it worked well enough. Crowd participation was pretty good, but not great. Good enough for a new song with an awkward chorus.

“Until the End of the World”
I was sad that there wasn’t a Bono vs. The Edge battle, but the song was more than welcome. I hadn’t been expecting it because I’d read they might have been retiring the song for the time being, so I was a little surprised. I think this song usually does well live, and this time was no exception.

“Stay (Far Away, So Close!)”
I was really surprised by this song. While it’s not my favorite U2 song, it’s a bit of a live rarity, so I enjoyed it.

“Unforgettable Fire”
I honestly thought this was one of the new album’s tracks or a track from All That You Can’t Leave Behind that I’d forgotten about. I totally forgot this song existed. I’m a terrible U2 fan. To be honest, it’s probably because Bono’s voice is fantastically better than it was in 1985. It’s also probably a testament to the fact that U2 still has the same general sound, even twenty years later.

“City of Blinding Lights”
The crowd really got into this one. I’m honestly surprised Bono didn’t throw a “…in the city… of Chicago” in there. I mean, it fits the rhythm and everything. Shame on you, Bono, for missing the obvious suck-up. Though the speech about Barack Obama was pretty sycophantic, so I guess I’ll have to give you some leeway. Also of note, this is the point the show started to go into Bizarre Techno Land. The stage and screen really started to get active and this song lead into…

“Vertigo”
Bono was just about bursting at this point. I think the run during “City” might have taken a bit out him. Or maybe he’s just getting tired of the song already. I kind of am. The crowd seemed to like it alright though. So I guess that’s all that’s really important. The breakdown lead into…

“I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” (remix)
This was where the crazy nightclub bit started. The screen at this point had pretty much obscured the band from view, leaving the light show and screens to do most of the work. And they did. The opening “head-bobbing” intro made me laugh pretty hard. Have you seen the “Discotheque” video? It was sort of like that, except a little less Village People and a little more silly. Also, this version was vastly superior to the album version, with the band walking the catwalk. Especially enjoyable was Larry Mullen Jr walking around with a mic’d drum, providing most of the rhythmic interest in the song. And then he headed back to his drum kit and helped finish up the song. Which was pretty awesome.

“Sunday Bloody Sunday”
I don’t have much to add what I said earlier. Except, I guess, that The Edge definetly had to reign in Bono on this one (see the “Rock the Casbah” comments.) I have no idea what Bono was riffing on at the end. Something about a “freedom song.”

“MLK”
See my comments above.

“Walk On”
See my comments above. Also, I personally detest this song.

“One”
Amusingly introduced by Desmond Tutu, this performance was significantly closer to the album version than during the Vertigo tour. However, it included the coda that the band added afterward. I don’t remember the “proper” name it has, but it’s pretty well known among the U2 faithful.

“Amazing Grace”
The most “amazing” part of this song was that Bono did this song entirely by himself on guitar and vocals at the same time. Bono has said “I used to want to play guitar very badly. Now I do play guitar. Very badly.” Seriously, though, this was a great bridge into…

“Where the Streets Have No Name”
I think was surprised me the most on this is that Bono didn’t do his traditional lap around the catwalk. Although by this point he was probably a little winded. I’ll allow it. He was, however, pushing the beat pretty hard, so the crowd was having some issues keeping in time. Also included in this was the “All you need is love” coda. I will admit, the song wasn’t as active as it could have been, so I can see why it was dropped from the set the night before.

“Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”
The intro to this song was creepy as hell. Aside from that, the main draw of the song was a) being rare, and b) Bono’s crazy laser beam jacket. By which I mean Bono had a jacket with laser beams sewn into it. That, combined with the lighted, hanging microphone, the stage lighting, and some video editing, made this song quite the production number. While not as technically demanding as, say, “I’ll Go Crazy,” it was definitly a viceral experience, even if it’s a song I don’t really like.

“With or Without You”
Not much to say here. It’s “With or Without You.” No wacky codas, but some nice thank yous and whatnot. The Edge is probably right, though: the outro riff is probably the best guitar part he’s ever written. And it’s just some nice, upstroked chords. Nice guitar playing, Mr. The Edge.

“Moment of Surrender”
I don’t particularly like this song. I like the choruses, but that’s about it. I’m pretty sure they could have just ended with “With or Without You” and the show would have been fine. Because I don’t think this song (or at least this performance of it) is making anyone rush out and get the album.

General Notes (aka, For CRAZY Fans Only)

The intro music was David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” There was an overall “space” theme to the show, but it was still pretty loosely tied together. Not the heavy theme of the ZooTV or Popmart tours, but all the extravagance was there. Less push on irony, more push on having fun with millions of dollars worth of electronics.

I thought the set was a little heavy on 2000s-era songs, though having a new album skews that number a bit. I would have liked more Zooropa and Pop in the set, especially given the dance nature of the middle of the show.

As I mentioned with “The Unforgettable Fire,” the show highlighted how little the band has changed as a live act during its existence.

I would have liked a bit more thought in the sequencing of the songs. “Your Blue Room” and “Stay” seemed especially out of place with regard to their positions in the set.

This was the first show since 2001 without “Pride (In the Name of Love)” in the set. Supposedly the official setlist included it after “MLK”, but it wasn’t there in the show.

The Edge’s piano raised up from the stage on songs that he needed it and then lowered back when he was done with it. Not that impressive, but it was a nice detail, and it helped keep the stage neat and organized.

Oh, and Bono, I think the line you wanted to finish your thank you speech in “With or Without You” with was “Don’t forget about us, and don’t forget about each other.” Just in case you’re reading.

Post-Script

My wife and I were talking about the show on the drive back home from Chicago, and I mentioned that, while it’s possible to have someone do a similarly-proficient show on a technical level, it’s unlikely any other band could have done something on this scale. With the industry the way it is, labels are reluctant to fund something like this. And really, U2’s Popmart tour is widely regarded as a failure.

If I had to make a prediction, I’d say Tool or the Rolling Stones are the only bands that would mount such an endeavor, but certainly not on this scale. Other pop acts, like Madonna, Robbie Williams, or some other act of that caliber could probably do something this large, but not this advanced. I really think only U2 have the funds, the fans, and the desire to create a show so over-the-top. But they’re also, I think, conscious of themselves, and can actually pull off the show without it seeming forced, and while still engaging the audience.

In short, I highly recommend seeing this tour if you can because you’re probably not going to see another one like it… unless U2 tries to outdo themselves yet again.

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U2’s No Line on the Horizon: A Review

March 6, 2009 2 comments

Since my first review on this blog was a review of the then-current U2 release How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb, felt it was only fitting to review the now-current U2 release, No Line on the Horizon. I will follow the format of my Death Magnetic review, with a general album rundown, and then a track-by-track breakdown.

U2 have never been a group of guys to be subtle. Or at least, they rarely are. Bombast and excess have been used to their fullest extent on their albums, for different reasons, for pretty much their whole career. Bono’s voice doesn’t really do intimate. The Edge’s guitar work is a constant focus. Larry Mullin, Jr’s drumming and Adam Clayton’s bass playing are the grooving, driving, rock-n-roll part of the band. In the 80s, this bombast lent itself to the heart-on-their-sleeves activism and political stance. In the 90s, the excess skewed the band toward irony and self-parody. Now, in this current version of the U2 sound, the layers of produced-by-committee, overworked arrangements try to work toward the “Okay, we admit it, we’re the greatest band in the world” mentality of the 2000s.

But really, for a band that’s always been so bent on changing their sound–from Larry Mullin’s desire to not be a punk band to Bono’s wishes to go away and dream it all up again, to The Edge’s futuristic techno-punk guitar explosions–this outing sounds about as much like U2 as one could expect. Rather than channeling their early-80s sound, No Line is a revisting of their 90s forays into techno and pop, more akin to Zooropa than to The Unforgettable Fire. Unfortunately, many of the problems with those 90s albums are present in this new disc. The desire to pile on effects, sequencing, and ambience gets in the way of some really solid songwriting.

Make no mistake, this album is good. Very good. If I were inclined to rank the albums I’d likely put this one as fourth in their catalog, after The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby!, and Pop. I don’t think there’s a single “bad” track on the album, and that’s saying something. But there are some particular flaws in each song, which I’ll get to in a bit. (I’ll give you a hint: most of the complaints involve the phrase “there’s too much.”) And I think the second half, starting with “Get on Your Boots”, is very, very good.

Right now the band is in the midst of a week-long stint on The Late Show with David Letterman. I’ve never liked watching U2 on a small stage because Bono’s stage antics and giant personality don’t really serve the small screen (despite my 42-inch plasma…) very well. And really, I think that’s the problem with this album. While constantly pushing themselves to excel, the band tips over into excess this time, and I just don’t understand why. Maybe it’s to make sure no one confuses them with Coldplay?

Track-By-Track

“No Line on the Horizon”
On the first track of the album–the title track, no less, which seems odd–we are almost assaulted with piles of Eno-inspired synth pads. Edge alternates between the shimmery echo of his 80s sound and the dirty funky sound of the 90s sound, and for the most part this works. Unfortunately for Mullin and Clayton, the rhythm section is ultimately the problem. The song is entirely too busy to make it sound open and airy and as free as, say, The Joshua Tree.

“Magnificent”
There’s too much Bono. The song begins with some really great sequencing, and the rhythm tracks kick in, and then Bono screws up the whole thing with an admittedly half-assed disco syncopation that grates badly against the chorus. I think this song is what “Discotheque” would have been if it weren’t so campy and fun. This is not campy, nor fun. But I think it’s because the song sounds tired, not because the song is bad. I’m waiting for the live version on this one. With the amount of sequencing the band uses live, I think the song will really come into its own on the road.

“Moment of Surrender”
There’s too much Eno. The pads, the vocal harmonies, the drum sequencing, the whole thing sounds more like a leftover Eno project than a U2 song. A more sparse arrangement would lend itself much better, and the chorus would be able to really be something transcendent, instead of merely above-average.

“Unknown Caller”
This was the first time on the album that I was really hooked. The way the song builds is really impressive, from the mellow intro to The Edge’s backing vocals, to The Edge’s shimmering guitar. Even the Coldplay-imitated “wooh oh oh oh oh” vocal hooks are pretty good. The chorus chants are definite Eno influences. But I think most of this song is The Edge’s work, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Like I said to my wife (who is a thousand times the U2 fan that I am), this album is essentially the world catching up to The Edge’s ahead-of-his time guitar work. Also: I really like the simple solo on this song. No effects, no gimmicks, just a really good solo. Nice one, Mr. The Edge.

“I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”
If there’s ever been a waste of a fucking great song title, this is it. Even when they played this on Letterman, it seemed like the band wasn’t exactly happy with this song. Except, oddly, Larry Mullin, Jr., who rarely smiles. The chorus is a certifiable hook and the middle eight is good enough, though, so I expect it will probably be in the live set for a while. I don’t know, it could be good, but I think this is probably this album’s “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of.” Bono may acknowledge his downfalls in this song, but I think he could have just left this one off the album and no one would care.

“Get on Your Boots”
If this song had some dirtier guitar work and Rob Zombie singing on it, it would have been on Hellbilly Deluxe. If you listen to it in that frame of mind, it’s an entirely different song. Not better, mind. Just different. Mr. Zombie, if you’re reading this: please cover this song. I will buy the album it’s on. And anyone who thinks this song is a bizarro throwaway song? That’s the point. Enjoy it for what it is.

“Stand Up Comedy”
This song is pretty much “The Fly” from Achtung Baby. That’s a good thing. “Stop helping God/Across the road/Like a little old lady” is probably one of the best lyrics that ever came from Bono’s pen. “Stand up to the rockstars” he says. Well… okay. If he’s letting me.

“Fez – Being Born”
A great segue track. Containing samples from other tracks on the album (as well as from other sources, I assume), it serves as a great bridge between the wacky middle tracks and the more serious work of the final tracks. At once The Joshua Tree and Bjork’s “All is Full of Love”, this song is where I’d like to see the band go on the next album, if there is one. Which I expect.

“White as Snow”
There’s too much other stuff. Half the song could be just Bono and some guitar. No synth, no piano, just voice and guitar. Think about it: U2’s best songs (“With or Without You”, “Running to Stand Still”, “MLK”, “Bad”, “One”) are incredibly sparse. As this should be. More than it is, anyway. Unfair to Larry and Adam, sure, but the amount of good rhythm work elsewhere should more than make up for this one. I mean, they let The Edge have “Numb” on Zooropa. And there’s too much backing vocal work. One other harmony track, guys. That’s plenty.

“Breathe”
Another mostly-segue intro. The only thing I dislike about this song is the syncopated piano bit in the chorus. I suspect this was Eno’s doing again, but I can’t be sure. Bono channels Bob Dylan in the verses and well… Bono in the choruses. Maybe Chris Martin? Have we gotten to the point that Coldplay and U2 are creating a feeback loop? Coldplay does U2 who in turn do Coldplay? How ass-backwards is that? Having said that, this song is fantastic, aside from that weird piano thing.

“Cedars of Lebanon”
I honestly don’t know what to think about this track. It left me feeling… weird. It’s the first time in a long time I truly had a visceral reaction to a song. I can’t tell if it’s about an actual specific person, I can’t tell if the style of the song is an homage. But this song is the most perfectly balanced of all the tracks on the album. And then, just like that, it ends. Abruptly. There is talk that it might be a reference to the Cedar Revolution (in Lebanon–go fig!) but it might also be a reference to the book of Psalms, many of which David supposedly wrote while in the wilderness. I have no idea what the song actually means, it might just be about a journalist covering the Revolution. Or a soldier in the conflict. Or… I could just listen to the song and appreciate how friggin’ amazing it is.

Conclusion

So there it is. Just about every thought that crapped out of my head after listening to No Line on the Horizon a few times. Unlike some other albums I’ve reviewed, I think this an obvious good album. Not without flaws, but damn good. Thanks for sticking with me.

If We Weren’t So Alike, You’d Like Me a Whole Lot More…

February 9, 2006 Leave a comment

In response to the record stores being sold out of the new Mastodon album (which is, in actuality, a rerelease of their debut EP and four new songs), I had a day long moratorium on writing. And something happened last night. Yes, the Grammys were last night. In that light, today’s review is:

U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

Yes, the album is almost a year old. But it won five Grammys last night. So I figured it’s worth a shot. Also, I actually own this album, as opposed to the new Mastodon.

U2’s 2005 release is more than simply another U2 record. That would have been reserved for Rattle and Hum or Zooropa. U2’s evolution has followed a more-or-less block format. There’s that first bit, Boy through War, in which they were the young, impudant freedom-fighters. Then came The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, and Rattle and Hum. This block came out of the obvious influence of years of American touring. But even U2 realized that they were quickly becoming a one-trick pony. After a break they released their German-influenced Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop. Then we got All That You Can’t Leave Behind. And now How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Apparently U2 equate success with long album titles. Or the public does, because these two albums were two of U2’s biggest sellers to date. ATYCLB is a carefully constructed pop album, though, aside from a couple cuts.

How to Dismantle… takes the sound of ATYCLB and turns it into a rock album. Yes, How to Dismantle… is a pop record, with cuts like “Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own”, but it’s got just as many flat-out rockers. Far more than their older albums, in some cases. Things like “Vertigo” and “City of Blinding Lights” would never be on something like, say, Pop. Or October, for that matter. Yes, the punky attitude on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is wholly unlike the attitude on their earlier albums. But the same U2 pomp and arrogance is there. “Love and Peace or Else”? Can’t get much more arrogant than that.

The production is somewhere between the slick sheen of ATYCLB and the expansiveness of The Unforgettable Fire or The Joshua Tree. No claustrophobic techno mixes here. Just enough grit to be relavent and punky in the time of The White Stripes and Jet. The guitars crackle, the bass pounds and thumps, Bono’s voice is far less pronounced than on All That You Can’t Leave Behind. I think with the refining of digital technology, the next album or two from U2 will sound a little more refined, though. Just a predition. The only thing that’s really lacking in fidelity in my opinion is the sound of the sequenced drum bits and/or the synth parts. Especially compared to some of the better electronics production on 90s albums.

This album has spawned a few big, big singles, and probably has a couple more left in it. The virtual inescapability from “Vertigo” is obvious, and both “Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own” and “City of Blinding Lights” won Grammys. I’d keep my eyes open for “Love and Peace or Else” still, and “Original of the Species” is already out there, even though I still don’t particularly like that song. “All Because of You” is big as well. There’s a reason this album has one of the best collective ratings of all the albums I have in iTunes.

Of course, with all those great songs, there’s got to be a clunker here and there, and some of the last half falls short when put up against the other songs on the album. “Yahweh”, while having a good melody, is overwraught and pretentious. “A Man and a Woman” just doesn’t do it for me. The falsetto, delivered by the Edge, I assume, is just annoying more than anything. In fact, just about all of the songs past “All Because of You” are pretty mediocre.

What U2 really excelled at on How to Dismantle is their ability to connect with the energy of their own audience. Even the successful ballads by the band, like “One” or “With or Without You” tap into a feeling, a stream of consciousness of the listener. They tap into it, and they demand attention, because they connect with the listener. When U2 fail (at least commercially), it is because they are failing to do that. Zooropa and Pop weren’t failures because they were bad songs, it’s because the songs didn’t capture the engergy of U2, and they lost that powerful dynamic–the drive of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr., the swagger of Bono, and the calculated brilliance of the Edge.

Now, the first time I heard this album was when vh1.com was streaming it the week before its release. I originally dismissed well over half of the album; it was “too much like All That You Can’t Leave Behind, not enough Edge guitar delay on it.” But upon subsequent listenings, more and more details popped out to me. There’s one little bit on “Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own”, in which Bono is repeating the chorus, and singing up to the line “Best you can do/is to fake it”. There’s a bit of literary irony here in the delivery. Bono has long since lost the keening tenor of the early days, destroyed by cigarettes and alcohol. So in the 90s he started singing in a falsetto voice, or the high-pitched, “head-voice” singing that permeates the later U2 records. “Falsetto” literally means “false”… or fake. In a line that he’s working up to a falsetto pitch on the word “fake”, he suddenly decides to attempt the pitch in full voice… leading to a ragged, ugly crack.

The whole album can be boiled down to that one word. Sometimes, even the biggest band in the world can go at something honestly and come out making something ugly. Most of the album is great, but some of it is composed of bad decisions. But, like “fake”, I’m sure the decisions were deliberate; they thought they were good ideas at the time. I’m sure one day we’ll be getting an apology for some of the worse songs on the album. If there’s anything U2 has the humility to do, it’s admit when they’ve been wrong. I think one day they’ll see some of these songs as less than perfect.

But the ones that are… man. They’re perfect.