Music Features

U2 - An Exegesis

As I get older and am forced to really question what I like and don’t like about music, I keep coming around to the same conclusion. I think what makes good music, and good art for that matter, is the presence of a strong intelligence or intriguing personality that shines through it. This is what makes me ultimately identify with and absorb whatever I’m listening to/reading/watching. Where music is concerned, it’s the kind of thing that makes you feel like you know the mind behind it, and that this mind has something worthwhile or urgent to say. And I don’t mean that the lyrics need to have a message, I mean the music (and words hopefully) communicates something universally true about human beings that, when listened to, connects you to the broader world at large. This is one of the main reasons I don’t usually get into electronic music; because a computer has nothing to tell me about humanity.

This is a completely distinct attribute of musicianship from craft and skill. For instance, Billy Joel is a superb craftsman, but he’s a boorish and narcissistic personality, and what his songs reveal about him, I’d rather not know. Yet you can still listen to his songs and sort of enjoy them superficially because he knows how to work a melody and some chords. On the other hand, you have skilled people like the members of Journey, whose product is well put together, but ultimately banal with emotions that sound like a put-on. In fact, Journey and Billy Joel and others before them serve as models for most of the chart-friendly music we still hear today with vapid personalities over-emoting over digitized beats. Real human feeling and intelligence is a rare commodity, not suitable for the FM dial, probably because it’s too real for casual listening and would provoke thought which is the last thing the advertisers who pay for it all want from you.

So where does U2 fit in this scenario? First off, let’s acknowledge that the boys can pen a good pop song, with catchy hooks and a nice sense of martial rhythm. Second, I think The Edge is an innovative guitarist who always pushes boundaries. Finally, one has to say that Bono has an amazing range and an uniquely expressive voice (which doesn’t always work to his advantage). As a result, most of what they do is going to be at least ear-catching and enjoyable on some level. These are very talented people.

But what are they really about? What are they trying to say? What kind of personality lurks behind this music? This is where U2 loses it for me. What I hear when I listen to Bono sing is a guy who’s kind of self-righteous (Sunday Bloody Sunday), obvious (Pride), a bit pompous and overblown (Angels of Harlem), or yawningly overemotional (With or Without You, One). In other words, not really someone I want to get to know any better. Sure, he’s on the right side of all the issues and he loves the world just like he’s supposed to, but so what? How bland is that? Occasionally they hit on something interesting, like the nervous alienation of Streets Have no Name. But I rarely hear anything from this band that really stops me in my tracks and makes me say, ”wait a minute, where did that come from”? And where is the humor? That’s the one thing missing from so much music today, other than rap quite frankly. Listen to any great Beatles (particularly Lennon) song, or Dylan, and you’ll hear a phrase that will turn your head and make you sit and wonder. Great artists reveal something about themselves while they are trying to communicate. What does U2 reveal? How do you feel when you listen to their music? Think about what sentiments they express that aren’t fairly ordinary and plain. Walk on is about a break up. Yippee, haven’t heard that one before. When Bono starts to emote all over the place, are you feeling pain or longing or an incredible simulation? Now take a Lennon song at random, say, I'll Cry Instead. A breakup song just like all the rest, right? Here’s a line:

“But I'll come back again someday.
And when I do you'd better hide all the girls, 'cause I'm gonna
Break their hearts all 'round the world. Yes, I'm gonna
Break them in two, and show you what your loving man can do”

Now think of the pain in those boastful lines. This a man full of pride who is showing you his vulnerability by ironically bragging about all the women he’s gonna get now that she dumped him. And the beat just bounces along to cover the hurt. This is a complex personality at work, revealing himself.

Let me talk a little more about what I mean by bland. Everyone is absolutely right to talk about their sonic adventurousness. I’ve always admired them for it and its one of their real strengths. It almost always makes their records interesting to listen to. Again, I’m not trying to write them off because they have a lot of strengths and are a good band in a lot of ways. But I certainly don’t hear anything in most of their music that makes me feel anything in particular, and the lyrics are predominately filler. They pick something to write about and they write a bunch of lines that relate to the subject. There’s no wit to it, there’s no feeling that they’re actually engaged with these emotions other than superficially. They seem like a vehicle to deliver a pop song. I’ll take another simple pop song, completely at random, but a great one, to contrast it with. Listen to Then He Kissed Me by the Crystals. If you don’t know it, I’m sure you can find it online somewhere (The original version produced by Phil Spector is the essential one – all others suck).

“When he danced he held me tight
And when he walked me home that night
All the stars were shining bright
And then he kissed me”

Simple, you say? But listen to the grandeur of Phil Spector’s production. First off, the music really sounds like its celebrating something wonderful and momentous in this girl’s life. And what does it tell us together with the lyrics? The girl is shy, never been in love before, in fact up to now she was just a girl and now she is on the verge of becoming a woman, with all the fear and excitement that goes with that. It’s all there in 2 minutes 35. I’m not a teenage girl and never have been, but I know exactly how she feels when I’m listening to this song.

U2, for all their strengths, doesn’t really do this kind of thing well. I’m talking about making you feel something that you hadn’t felt before. For instance, a straightforward anti-war song may be passionate (like Sunday Bloody Sunday) but still kind of bland, because we know war is bad. Have they looked at it from a different angle this time? No, the sentiments are clichéd but delivered with energy and gusto, so it’s still a decent song. This is why I get my back up when people put U2 alongside the greats, because being good performers and talented craftsmen is one thing, but the greats really rearrange your head, stop you in your tracks and put you someplace where you never were.

Now perhaps a case could be made that purely on a sonic level, U2 deserves to reside with the best bands in rock history. To me, this is defining greatness a little too narrowly. The fact is their songs usually have words, and Bono sings them, and this is hard (for me) to ignore. Now I would say that a purely exhilarating sound is quite enough to make a great record. I’m thinking of I Wanna Hold Your Hand, for example (though I’d argue that the innocence of the lyric is belied by the orgasmic nature of the song making for an interesting contrast. This is the difference between very good and great perhaps).

I was just the right age when U2 came out with War (around 16 years old), and I liked it. I liked that they sounded different and the songs were upbeat and driving. On Unforgettable Fire they sounded even stranger and showed a tender side (Bad). Up to that point they hadn’t made a fully great record (IMO) that was consistent from start to finish, except for maybe the ep. Fire was particularly spotty. Then came Joshua Tree. I remember distinctly when that came out and it divided some people, and I came out on the negative end of that debate. Here, they had honed their pop sensibility to a fine sheen and were able to make a consistent record. However, they seemed to want to tackle a big subject (America) and this is where Bono’s sense of stylized grandeur (so evident at Live Aid when he takes the girl in his arms and surrounds her with his magnificence*) really became a problem for me and has stuck with me ever since. So that has been an impediment to me enjoying them fully, and I haven’t heard much since then to really change my mind, though I admit that they occasionally really get it right (Mysterious Ways).

I guess they have a new one coming out and maybe they will transcend their shortcomings, not like they have any need to. It’s great that the same four guys keep trying after 30 years. But aesthetic greatness requires more than just superficial pleasure and the large bulk of the U2 catalog comes down to just that. Not surprisingly, their impact on the music scene at large has been just as superficial, with acolytes taking cues from their sonic experiments and little else. This is a supremely talented group of musicians, with an active imagination, but true greatness has usually eluded their grasp. We’ll have to stay tuned to see if that situation changes.

* Of course this was a Springsteen trick that Bono picked up, but Bruce was a goofy dancer and the girl he picked probably was too, but they did it anyway because it’s just fun to dance. The two situations are worlds apart.